Guest Blog: Can Autonomous Vehicles Alleviate Transportation Obstacles for Americans with Disabilities?

Samuel Lillard
Samuel Lillard

Change is coming to the automotive industry as we move into a new era of autonomous vehicles and computer-aided transportation. A growing number of cities soon will operate driverless buses. This new technology is being met with both praise and union protests.

Automated and other emerging transportation technologies are advancing with surprising speed. The goals for businesses that pioneer these transportation advances range from filling an undiscovered niche for profit to transforming the entire transportation infrastructure.

Disruption is in the air, and it is easy to imagine that self-driving vehicles will help many, but two groups—seniors and people with disabilities—may be more excited than others.

Americans with disabilities are hopeful that this new technology will transform the way they travel and how they engage in their communities. Three years ago, the National Council on Disability issued a report outlining its recommendations to ensure that people with disabilities have full access to the self-driving cars of the future. For people with disabilities and the country’s ever-expanding senior population, self-driving cars potentially could create a great leap forward in providing independence, inclusion and greater economic opportunities.

Because inaccessible transportation has always been a big barrier to employment and community involvement, autonomous vehicles could change the day-to-day lives of seniors and Americans with disabilities. During the last census in 2010, it was reported that nearly one in five people in the U.S. has a disability, which amounts to almost 56.7 million people. In addition, in 2016, the U.S. reached a milestone—for the first time, our population includes more than 50 million people aged 65 and older.

Specifically, for epileptics, the blind and others with similar conditions who cannot obtain driver’s licenses, self-driving cars would open new employment opportunities. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities. This includes allowing employees to perform essential functions of their jobs. For many, the ability to drive and possess a driver’s license is an essential function.

With the advent of self-driving vehicles, the ability to drive may no longer be essential, thus requiring new workplace modifications and job descriptions. It also is anticipated that future employers may be asked to allow the use of—or even provide—self-driving vehicles as a form of workplace accommodation, limited by reasonableness and cost. Although this may spawn litigation and be a burden to employers in the future, it also may assist employers who are struggling to fill positions by giving them access to an expanded workforce.

Further in the future, it is not hard to imagine that this technology may decentralize the workplace altogether. For example, if someone runs a business that requires light assembly jobs, one can imagine outfitting buses to act as mobile workspaces with the inventory and equipment on board. The employer then could send the self-driving vehicle to the employee, who enters the mobile workspace, completes the work and leaves. The self-driving vehicle then could return to the employer with the completed work.

Although this may appear farfetched, one thing is clear: Technology is here and it is rolling down the street. Americans with disabilities may soon have much more access to their cities and places of employment.

Samuel Lillard is a partner at the Columbus office of Fisher Phillips, a national management-side labor and employment law firm.