Automotive, self-driving, mobility and designing for everyone

ridc transport

The opening paragraph to the government’s Connected & Automated Mobility 2025 report set out how “The potential benefits are considerable: from better integrating rural communities and reducing isolation for people with disabilities or older people, to helping deliver essential goods and improving access to education, work and leisure.”

What’s more it continued: “We intend to require any organisation seeking authorisation of their vehicle as self-driving to submit an assessment of fair outcomes, including… considerations of the importance of accessibility for people with different disabilities.”

So, real-world rewards with statutory backing to make sure it happens – sounds like a great plan. MotorPro asked Research Institute for Disabled Consumers’ CEO, Gordon McCullough, how it is working out in practice.

What do you see as the likely impacts of self-driving for disabled people?

Self-driving can clearly be a transformative technology for a lot of disabled people, particularly those who find transport inaccessible. In a world where you are unable to drive, whether that's due to a vision or dexterity impairment, or a learning disability, the first and last mile is a huge issue. An on-demand self-driving service, taking you from your door to wherever you need to go – a transport hub, hospital or shopping centre – could be a gamechanger, theoretically a wonderful step forward.

The problem is nobody's really talking about how to design these things to make them accessible, and nobody's really talking to disabled people about their concerns. We're actively working to address that now – doing research with TRL into disabled peoples’ attitudes to connected and autonomous vehicles, and doing webinars with Zenzic to engage with the self-driving industry.

Can you give some examples of the transport challenges that need solving?

The Motability Foundation found that disabled people are 38% less likely to use UK public transport than non-disabled people. That’s a damning statistic and it hasn't changed in over a decade.

There are two million people registered blind or partially sighted in the UK. Street environments alone present enough challenges, things like travelling on the tube can be fraught with difficulties – from annoyances like people petting their guide dogs, to the lack of audio feedback on payment terminals.
As we’ve seen with charging for electric vehicles, the anxieties are multiplied for disabled people. To try and understand the pain points, and then to use design to build trust and acceptance, that’s still a fanciful concept for a lot of people. It should be best practice.

Is human-to-human customer service essential to building trust in self-driving?

Regardless of whether you’re disabled or not, there will initially be a degree of anxiety about travelling in a driverless vehicle, even if there’s a member of staff on board. The existence of very responsive support is vital, but we don't yet know what level of assurance is enough. If there’s a special assistance button – somebody on the end of the line who knows where you are, understands your impairments and can sort the problem quickly, or get somebody out to help you – is that enough?

How does the provision of such clear customer service affect the business case?

Profit margin aside, what about the social case? Time and again we find that when a technology runs away with itself, disabled people almost inevitably get forgotten. Companies then go back and try to put fixes in place, and end up spending a lot more money than they would if they had started by asking: how do we make this accessible for everyone, not just 80% of the population?