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Beauty from Innovation in Advanced Transportation: A Conversation About Accessibility

As automakers and technology companies develop self-driving vehicles, accessibility becomes a bigger part of the passenger vehicle conversation. This is because self-driving vehicles have the potential to create unprecedented independence and mobility for disabled populations. Here are some legal implications surrounding accessibility and self-driving vehicles.

The New Rule for Driving

Self-driving vehicles change the number one rule for driving: the car needs a licensed driver. A licensed driver must be able to see, control the car and obey the traffic laws. This rule is enforced through state driver’s license laws. Self-driving vehicles create a new rule: the car does not need a licensed driver if it can drive itself for the complete road trip, start to finish. Any person who can enter their vehicle and give the vehicle its destination can use the car. Some states have passed laws reflecting this new rule. Michigan, for instance, requires that the vehicle’s self-driving system (not a human) comply with traffic laws when the vehicle is doing the driving. And the state does not require a licensed human driver if the vehicle can complete the entire drive.

This rule change is liberating. It means that a blind person can get into a car, give it a destination and the car will drive there. The same is true for an elderly person who can no longer obtain a driver’s license, for someone who never had a driver’s license and for many whose physical conditions prevent them from driving. This increased accessibility of self-driving vehicles opens up personal transportation in a whole new way to many people. As a window into future benefits, one study found that self-driving vehicles could lead to two million employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  

This liberating benefit of self-driving cars has not gone unnoticed. People are talking about it. For example, the Community Transportation Association of America issued a Statement of Principles for Automated Vehicles. Under this statement, the association urges policy makers and industry to fully embed accessibility in the development of autonomous vehicles. And, in 2017, the American Council of the Blind passed a resolution opposing federal legislation on autonomous vehicles that did not support progress on accessibility requirements.

With accessibility firmly on the radar in this high-tech evolution to transportation, there is more to the story.

Transportation Service Requirements

Self-driving vehicles will be introduced in ride-share services that fall within federal and state accessibility laws and regulations. Two primary federal laws apply:

  • the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), intended to prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities in public life, and

  • the Twenty First Century Communications and Video Accessibilities Act, intended to ensure accessibility of communication services, communication equipment and video programming.

Under these laws, a public ride-share service must be accessible to people with disabilities. Potential impacts include requirements for wheelchair accessibility, equal access to ancillary transportation features (such as embarking and disembarking services as well as information services related to transportation), and when using advanced communication capabilities (like remote assistance), accessibility for hearing and vision impaired customers. There are also state and municipal laws addressing transportation accessibility that will impact self-driving vehicles. New York City, for example, recently imposed wheelchair accessibility requirements for ride hailing companies that will also apply to self-driving vehicle fleets.

Federal Safety Standards 

Accessibility may impact Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). Currently FMVSS reflect the premise of the automotive business case – most passenger vehicles are built for personal use. Uses requiring wheelchair accessibility are the exception. And there is no use case for a blind driver. Ride-share services change the premise for self-driving vehicles from personal use to public transportation services. This leads to a new automotive business case that places a bigger emphasis on accessibility. With this change, it makes sense to reevaluate the FMVSS. 

One potential impact of that evaluation: future FMVSS that accommodate flexible design options for accessibility. That sounds nice, but what does it mean?

First, current standards do not lead to many wheelchair accessibility options in vehicle design. All passenger cars and trucks must meet the FMVSS. Automakers must certify that their vehicles meet these standards before selling them. NHTSA creates these standards through a rulemaking process. Since these standards reflect the premise that most vehicles are built for personal use, they do not naturally lead to a wheelchair accessible vehicle. As a result, most cars are too small or the wrong shape to be converted to hold a person in a wheelchair. Larger vehicles, such as crossover vehicles and minivans, can be made wheelchair accessible after they have been manufactured. But this typically requires taking advantage of NHTSA’s preapproved exemptions to the FMVSS (or applying for a new FMVSS exemption). In other words, following the FMVSS typically leads to vehicles that are not wheelchair accessible and some safety standard requirements are omitted to make these vehicles wheelchair accessible. 

Second, self-driving vehicles may create the business case for mass-market vehicles that meet accessibility guidelines, in turn driving the creation of new safety standards. This business case may come from (a) new customers that want an accessible transportation option, and (b) the commercial use of these vehicles governed by accessibility laws and regulations. In other words, automakers may want to produce vehicles that, without need for modification, can readily serve both customers with and without mobility challenges. Doing this requires developing safety standards that allow more design flexibility while continuing to protect passenger safety. While the standard-setting process can be frustratingly lengthy, the conversation has begun.

So, we have discussed potential direction for new safety standards. What’s next?

Public Transit Systems

With new safety standards, public transit systems may have options to add new types of vehicles to their fleets and provide new transportation services using those vehicles.

For example, to be eligible for federal funds, public transit authorities must comply with the ADA for the vehicles they use. These vehicles must meet the relevant guidelines contained in the Department of Justice’s “2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design” (based upon the ADA Accessibility Guidelines adopted by the United States Access Board). This requirement limits the choice of vehicles that transit authorities can purchase and put into use because most vehicles are not wheelchair accessible and do not meet these guidelines. This limit in vehicle choice in turn limits the flexibility of transportation options that a public transit authority can offer. 

Changing this requires two steps. First, NHTSA needs to update the FMVSS to allow manufacturers more flexibility to design accessible vehicles. Automakers will then be able to offer new vehicles that accommodate accessibility needs. This will lead to accessible vehicles that are smaller and more flexible than many of today’s public transit vehicles. Second, the United States Access Board, working with the Department of Transportation and Department of Justice, may need to reevaluate and update public transit guidelines to account for new designs for accessible vehicles. These are two very big steps. But when these steps are taken, public transit systems will have the option to purchase new types of self-driving vehicles and to create new services that make use of them. These services will benefit many persons who today have limited transportation options.


This article was co-authored by Anthony Luke Simon, co-founder and president of sibrtech inc., a startup working on applications of machine learning and image processing for infrastructure-based transportation and industrial solutions. Prior to founding sibrtech inc., he was an attorney and executive at a major automotive company supporting autonomous vehicles (as practice area lead counsel), cybersecurity (as practice area lead counsel), telematics and vehicle communications services, and intellectual property matters.

© 2021 Varnum LLPNational Law Review, Volume IX, Number 212

About this Author

Jeffrey M. Stefan II Auto and Emerging Technology Attorney Varnum Law Firm

Jeffrey is a technology-focused corporate attorney with broad legal authority in autonomous and connected vehicles. He previously served as autonomous vehicle counsel for a major global automaker providing regulatory counsel and transactional support. Prior to that role, he supported the automaker's emerging technology portfolio, which included connected vehicle services and other advanced safety technologies.

Jeffrey helps his clients navigate the evolving legal and public policy landscape for new and emerging technologies. He additionally focuses on technology startups assisting...