Written Submission of Chair Clyde Terry to Senate Commerce Committee on Autonomous Vehicles

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Testimony of Clyde Terry  
Chair, National Council on Disability
Hands Off: The Future of Self-Driving Cars

Hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
U.S. Senate
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
2:30 P.M.
Russell Senate Office Building, Room 253

Chairman Thune, Ranking Member Nelson, and Esteemed Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation:

Thank you for the opportunity to provide written testimony for this timely and important hearing on autonomous vehicle technology. The National Council on Disability (NCD) is an independent federal agency charged with providing the Administration, Congress, and other federal agencies with advice and recommendations regarding disability policy --  including policy discussions around emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicle (AV) technology -- to improve the lives of people with disabilities. We applaud the Committee for examining this topic at today’s hearing and we offer ourselves to the Committee as an ongoing resource as you examine this topic and consider appropriate legislative responses.

An Exciting Innovation for Everyone, But a New Era for Some
Aside from being one of the most exciting innovations in transportation since the Model T began rolling off the assembly line in 1913, AV technology holds tremendous promise for many people with disabilities and seniors who currently lack access to independent transportation. In our recent report, “Self-Driving Cars: Mapping Access to a Technology Revolution,” the National Council on Disability examined the challenges and advances associated with this revolution in transportation technology and proposed directions in research and development that will most benefit those people with disabilities who are the most transportation disadvantaged because their disabilities prevent them from driving even a modified conventional vehicle.

Despite significant advances in accessible public transportation, a lack of reliable and accessible transportation remains one of the biggest deterrents to employment and community involvement for people with disabilities in the United States. Accordingly, autonomous vehicles have the potential to become an essential component of their independence, economic development, and well-being. Autonomous vehicles hold great promise to advance social inclusion by offering people with disabilities independent mobility to get to school, jobs, and all places that Americans go each day. They also offer the possibility of ending the isolation that many people who are aging experience by keeping them connected with others and to activities that are often lost when we lose the ability to drive.

An Opportunity We Can’t Afford to Miss
These remarkable benefits will not come at once and will not occur without cooperation among federal and state governments, research institutions, and private industry. Benefits will not emerge if the technology develops without universal accessibility for people with diverse disabilities, including intellectual and developmental, sensory, and physical disabilities. Accessibility must be infused in the research and development of AVs. Without explicit inclusion of accessibility in the development of AV technologies, the potential for opportunity wanes. As an example of the importance of this type of forethought as technology evolves, during the early days of the Internet, and still today, accessibility for people with disabilities was not considered by web developers, and many people with disabilities experienced and even now still do experience unnecessary obstacles to information (e.g., text that is inaccessible to screen reader software, lack of captions on audio content, keyboard-only navigation). Those obstacles diminish the opportunities available to people with disabilities that the Internet presents for people without disabilities. This is a lesson for AV researchers and engineers—the time is now to commit to and include accessibility.

From what we’ve seen so far, many in the industry understand the potential autonomous vehicles have to change the lives of people with disabilities, and that people with disabilities are a primary market for this technology. It’s important to make sure that accessibility stays at the forefront of this conversation so that people with disabilities don’t get left behind. Decisions that are made by policymakers, innovators, regulators and marketers will all impact how this technology is adopted and whether it achieves the potential it has to change the lives of people with disabilities who are transportation disadvantaged. We look forward to working with industry, advocates, and policymakers to shepherd this technology so as to result in a new era of inclusion for people with disabilities. Accordingly, we encourage you to include discussions of needs of this population as you convene future hearings on the topic of AV and to seek out the views and experiences of people with disabilities in those discussions.

NCD is grateful to the Committee for elevating this important topic through today’s hearing and we encourage Committee members and their staff to review our report, “Self-Driving Cars: Mapping Access to a Technology Revolution” which is available on our website at: https://www.ncd.gov/publications/2015/self-driving-cars-mapping-access-t.... We look forward to providing further testimony at future hearings on this topic.