An asian man with locs pushes an elderly man in a wheelchair. They are in front of a red car.
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“Almost every ride I call I have a problem or am canceled on,” Kai Brunner told The Daily Dot. Brunner utilizes a service dog, and though state and federal laws prohibit rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft from denying service to disabled riders with service animals, the reality is often much different.

Self-driving cars—cars that drive without a human operator—are supposed to change that. For people with disabilities, autonomous vehicles (AVs) have long been a promise of greater freedom and opportunities. With no human driver, there’s no one to deny service based on prejudice. Self-driving cars could allow the disabled community greater access to employment, services, and simply leaving the house.

But are AVs, a new and emerging technology, being designed with disabled riders in mind? And what dangers might self-driving cars pose to disabled pedestrians?

Programming Bias

“Three of them have literally driven up, seeing that I’m in a wheelchair, press the cancel button on the trip and then keep driving.”

As of 2023, about half of the requests placed by wheelchair users to rideshare apps go unanswered. Both Uber and Lyft have wheelchair-accessible vehicle programs, but all of their cars are required to transport foldable assistive devices. As the Uber website states, “Drivers are expected to accommodate riders using walkers, canes, folding wheelchairs, or other assistive devices.” If a rider utilizes the “regular” car program for their folding device, a driver may not know their passenger is disabled until they come to pick them up, and some drivers refuse to load a wheelchair into their vehicles or to take the time to assist a disabled rider. Across the country, the news is full of stories from people who say they were denied rides because of their disabilities.  

In 2020, Lyft was ordered to pay $40,000 to the US government over a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice, which found the ridesharing app in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In addition, Lyft was found liable to pay damages to four disabled plaintiffs who were denied transportation, including a veteran who had lost his legs in combat. In 2019, Uber was sued in a class-action lawsuit brought by wheelchair users in and around Pittsburgh. 

As one wheelchair user told DC News, in a week as she tried to get rides from rideshare services, “Three of them have literally driven up, seeing that I’m in a wheelchair, press the cancel button on the trip and then keep driving.”

Self-driving cars do not always see disabled people as people.

In theory, having artificial intelligence (AI) at the helm of a rideshare car instead of a human would eliminate these discrimination issues. But as a brief from Ian Moura for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund states, “AVs and new technologies also come with significant risks of embedding and perpetuating bias and discrimination that permeate society.”

Those biases include self-driving car sensors that detect pedestrians who are walking rather than using wheelchairs and that register pedestrians only in crosswalks. Pedestrians don’t always stay in crosswalks, particularly if a service animal guides a person or someone is in a wheelchair and unable to navigate a crosswalk due to damaged curb cuts or obstructed sidewalks.

This ties into bias—ableism programmed into the AI of a self-driving car—in that a car’s sensors will only register people if they move in an expected way, such as walking. In other words, self-driving cars do not always see disabled people as people. 

As Moura writes, “When a researcher tested a model with visual captures of a friend who propels herself backward in her wheelchair using her feet and legs, the system not only failed to recognize her as a person, but indicated that the vehicle should proceed through the intersection, colliding with her.”

AVs could also help open job opportunities for people with disabilities, a group that faces an unemployment rate twice that of people who are non-disabled.

Considering Disability in Design

Some disabled activists are frustrated with these issues in AVs. Haben Girma, a deafblind lawyer, told The Verge, “People with disabilities stand to benefit the most from self-driving cars, but developers are not making accessibility enough of a priority.” According to The Verge, “Uber and Lyft initially claimed that their ride-hail fleets would be a boon for disabled customers, but wheelchair-accessible vehicles are largely absent from both companies’ platforms.”

One frustration from those in the disabled community is that not all carmakers have considered disability from the onset, working accommodations into the original design. Carmakers say they will consider accessibility after vehicles are completed, but that means disabled riders may have to modify vehicles themselves, which can be expensive and difficult.

As Forbes points out, “equipping ridesharing fleets with standard accessibility hardware and software such as wheelchair spaces, ramps, easily operable door handles and safety belts and a selection of both audio and visual interfaces, is the simpler side of the accessibility equation.” More complex—and pricey—disability considerations include enabling cars’ AI to understand where a passenger is sitting in the car to safely instruct them how to exit onto the street. A blind passenger, for example, might need different instructions than a rider who is sighted. 

One automaker, Volkswagen, has an Inclusive Mobility team working with disability organizations like the American Association of People with Disabilities to address these concerns in their AV designs. The Verge reports that “Toyota, Cruise, and Waymo are also working on solutions for how to transport riders with different bodies and accessibility needs.”

With approximately 57 million disabled people in the United States, carmakers stand to profit from the disability community should they prioritize disability considerations in their self-driving cars. AVs could also help open job opportunities for people with disabilities, a group that faces an unemployment rate twice that of people who are non-disabled. A study from the Ruderman Family Foundation found that disabled people could gain two million employment opportunities with the transportation provided by AVs. 

That’s one of the promises of self-driving cars, a promise that may be fulfilled or broken sooner rather than later. As Forbes writes, “A question of ‘when,’ rather than ‘if,’ still appears the most pertinent to be directed at a driverless future.” Whether that future will include all people remains to be seen.