In light of the 2021 Law and Mobility Conference’s focus on equity, the Journal of Law & Mobility Blog will publish a series of blog posts surveying the civil rights issues with connected and autonomous vehicle development in the U.S. This is the second part of the AV & Civil Rights series. Part 1 focuses on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Part 3 focuses on Title II of the Civil Rights Act. Part 4 focuses on the Fourth Amendment.

Leaders in the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry have promoted AVs as the gateway to transportation equity by providing people who are unable to drive due to age or disability with the freedoms of a car. Nearly every AV company is already experimenting with accessibility features. Waymo and Cruise are trying out braille and other features to assist blind users. Nissan has virtual reality avatars that may provide comfort and assistance to passengers with disabilities. May Mobility’s shuttle deploys a wheelchair ramp. However, federal law has mandated that transportation be accessible to everyone for over three decades, and this goal is still far from being realized. Can AVs really be different?

A 2017 survey by the Department of Transportation found that an estimated 25.5 million people in the U.S. have disabilities that make traveling outside of the home challenging. Further, more than 3.5 million Americans with travel-limiting disabilities are unable to leave their homes at all. As our population continues to age, these numbers will only increase. This lack of access to transportation has devastating impacts. Disabled people experience depression at a rate four times higher than the U.S. population as a whole, undoubtedly due in part to isolation. From an economic standpoint, mitigating transportation obstacles for disabled people would create employment opportunities for 2 million people with disabilities and save $19 billion annually from missed medical appointments.

Per federal law, transportation is not supposed to be this inaccessible. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) broadly mandates that both government and privately owned public transportation be accessible to people with disabilities. On the ground, inaccessibility has persisted, due in part to massive loopholes in the statute. The ADA does not apply to rail transit systems constructed prior to 1990, meaning that improved accessibility has been largely voluntary, and inadequate, for systems such as the New York subway. The ADA both mandates that buses have accessibility features and requires paratransit services to be available wherever there are fixed-route buses, but where inaccessible bus stops require door-to-door services. However, these services require reservation up to 48 hours in advance, and they are up to ten times more expensive per trip than fixed-route bus fare.

The ADA gets even messier for privately owned auto transportation systems. The statute does not require taxi services to purchase accessible vehicles, which makes hailing an accessible cab nearly impossible in many parts of the U.S. Ride shares have even further complicated this murky scheme. It also remains unclear whether the ADA covers ridesharing platforms at all, although a recent lawsuit against Uber may finally force a court to answer this question.

Regardless of whether the ADA will reach AV fleets, widespread mobility issues for Americans with disabilities in our current transportation system means that the statute will not do nearly enough on its own to promote accessibility for all. Even the experimentation with accessibility features that I detailed earlier will not be enough. AV will not be fully accessible unless it is uniformly accessible, and disability rights advocates are already worried that AV companies are striving for specialization at the expense of similar or identical accessibility features across all fleets.

The best way to ensure uniform accessibility for emerging transportation would probably be through sweeping federal legislation. This seems unlikely to happen any time soon, and in the meantime uniform accessibility will be left to AV companies themselves. AV companies have the opportunity to make AV transportation radically accessible from the start by accounting for mobility, visual, auditory, memory, and intellectual impairments in their design across competing fleets and geographic regions. This is the only way to ensure that the next transportation revolution does not leave our most vulnerable community members behind.