“If we’re overlooking this population, we’re losing out on a huge moneymaking opportunity,” states Michele Lee, Senior Public Affairs Manager, Accessibility for Cruise. Speaking in the above interview, Lee echoes recent Cruise-funded research from the National Disability Institute (PDF) that found that adopting accessible Autonomous Vehicles by people with disabilities could increase employment by 9.1M and U.S. GDP by 3.8% ($868 billion).
It goes beyond the quantitative, however, as autonomous vehicles provide potential improvement in quality of life by providing greater freedom of movement for those who otherwise would have to depend upon others.1 In the above interview, there are clips of Lee demonstrating the accessibility of Cruise’s Origin driverless vehicle.
Sasha Blair-Goldensohn adds that the opportunity is providing mobility for the next billion users. He points out that designing for accessibility helps people of all abilities, whether parents with strollers, tourists with luggage, or delivery companies. As he says,
“You’re helping your future self [by designing for accessibility] because this is a group that anybody can join on any day.”Sasha Blair-Goldensohn
It has been Blair-Goldensohn’s mission at Google Maps to add accessibility information to that valuable service. That effort stemmed from his challenges in getting around his hometown of New York City after his accident. He and others have been fighting to ensure reliable and ubiquitous and reliable elevator operation throughout the New York subway system.
Princeton Professor Alain Kornhauser has long advocated for designing autonomous mobility for accessibility and for shared autonomous mobility services that emulate an elevator. He believes that the initial focus of such services should be, as he puts it, the mobility disadvantaged. In the above video, he argues that manufacturers of autonomous vehicles are starting with the metaphorical clean sheet of paper and, as such, that the incremental cost of designing for accessibility is low.
Interview Highlights #
- 00:17 – Kornhauser talks about the opportunity for using autonomous vehicles to improve mobility for those who have been left behind by existing transportation methods.2
- 01:11 – Blair-Goldensohn explains how a 2009 walk through Central Park changed his trajectory. It also changed Google Maps for the better, as he has been instrumental in ensuring that accessibility information is included in this important application. He has also been tireless in his efforts to ensure the New York Subway system is accessible, particularly when it comes to operational elevators (as seen in the above video and as referenced in this lawsuit which indicates only 22% of the stations have elevators and that there are 25 elevator outages per day with a median 4-hour outage).
- 04:23 – Lee points out the difficulty and the stress of navigating a wheelchair at a conference like CES. She points to CDC data suggesting 1 in 4 Americans have some form of disability. She echoes Blair-Goldensohn by suggesting that mobility challenges will continue to grow with an aging population.
- 05:46 – Cruise is trying to solve the uncertainty that people in wheelchairs have regarding transportation.
- 06:21 – Building accessibility into the product from the beginning is about helping the future you, states Blair-Goldensohn. He appreciates the efforts of those who came before him and that helped pass the ADA. He recommends the movie CripCamp as a primer on the people who began, as the movie’s subtitle says, a disability revolution.
- 07:35 – Improvements have been made, but there is still a long way to go. Lee and Blair-Goldensohn relate their accessibility experience in the Las Vegas Convention Center Loop. Their poor experience with that mobility service reinforces the importance of integrating accessibility from the start.
- 10:58 – “The disabled community is the largest minority out there that anyone can join at any time,” reminds Lee.2 Blair-Goldensohn ends on a positive note that “Elevators are for everyone.” That simple message is at the heart of the Elevator Action Group, which Blair-Goldensohn co-founded.3
Additional References #
1 The NDI study identified five themes from their interviews. “Interviewees overwhelmingly believed AVs would offer them an increase in 1) employment opportunities, 2) entrepreneurship and small business success, 3) personal safety, 4) independence, and 5) health access.” (page 25)
2 Alain Kornhauser’s long career in transportation started with rockets in the 60s, personal rapid transit and trains in the 70s, trucking, and GPS in the 80s and 90s, and driverless with the DARPA Challenge in the 2000s.
3 In addition to her work at Cruise, Lee volunteers with the ADA Advisory Committee for the Chicago Transit Authority and the Chicago Department of Aviation’s Airport Advisory Committee. The United Spinal Association has an excellent 2021 profile on Lee.
4 Amongst other volunteer positions, Blair-Goldensohn is also on the East Coast Advisory Board for the Disability Rights Advocates.
Author Disclosure #
In response to a request from Michele Lee, this author submitted a January 23rd, 2023 letter of support for Cruise’s application to expand its services in San Francisco. To be clear, this letter of support was more for the concept of shared, electric, autonomous mobility and its potential benefits.
I am in no way in a position to judge the safety or effectiveness of Cruise’s current solution, other than what is available in the crash reports (human drivers should be so good). With that said, the real indication of an autonomous mobility service’s readiness is Cruise’s willingness to take such an important leap, given the potential financial risks to it and its deep-pocketed parent, GM.
It is easy to look at the potential for negative repercussions on such a new service. It is the positive things that are hard to measure, such as the potential for improved freedom of movement, that need further exploration. For better or worse, the only way to begin to measure the positive outcomes is to implement and refine the service in the real world.
The submission to the CPUC points out that San Franciso is fortunate to have this opportunity to help its citizens. From Trenton, New Jersey to Lake Nona, Florida, there are many communities that would welcome such a chance to improve the quality of life for their respective citizens. Sure, there are risks, but, as Professor Kornhauser would say, what fun is life without some risk?