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Home > News > The Automated Vehicles Bill: a missed opportunity for accessibility

The Automated Vehicles Bill: a missed opportunity for accessibility

Ezra Johnson
Campaigns and Communications Officer

With the passage of a new bill on self-driving cars, the future of transport looks closer than ever. But does the law do enough to make sure disabled people can be a part of that future?

A futuristic looking dashboard of a self-driving car on the road. The steering wheel has a holographic display that says

In 2022, the government announced that it wanted to see self-driving vehicles on the roads in as little as three years’ time, and set out plans for a new to make this prospect a reality. We wrote an article at the time outlining our hopes for the future of this technology for disabled people, but also spoke about the potential harms that might be done to our community if appropriate regulation was not put in place. 

Now, two years on, the government’s Automated Vehicles Bill has become law. But unfortunately, it is not the positive vision for disabled people that we had hoped. In fact, disabled people don’t seem to be a huge part of this Bill at all.   

So, we’re going to go through this piece of legislation: where it falls short, why this could cause harm, and what needs to happen next to ensure these problems are addressed.

1. Lack of co-production 

In 2022, the Law Commission and Scottish Law Commission released an extensive report on how self-driving vehicles could be implemented safely and effectively, providing detailed guidance to the government on what measures should be put into law to ensure this happened. Crucially, the report found that co-design with disabled people was absolutely central to this endeavor, stating: 

“We do not know the answers to many of the questions about how automated services can be made accessible, but with co-design we think that answers could be found. Without co-design, there is a risk of designing out those sections of society who could benefit the most.” 

To this end, the report recommended that the government create a statutory accessibility advisory panel, which included representation from disabled people, in order to advise the Secretary of State.  

However, despite implementing many of the other recommendations in the report, and despite saying that it wants to “ensure that all parts of society, including people with disabilities, can reap the benefits of self-driving technology”, the government have chosen not to include this accessibility panel in the new Bill. In fact, disabled people aren’t even on the list of people the Secretary of State is required to consult when issuing permits! 

This glaring omission is made worse by the fact that millions in public funds have been given to companies and projects that market their autonomous vehicles as a revolution for disabled people. Disabled people deserve to have a say in all transport projects. This is especially true when public money is being spent in our name. 

While the government has now made a “non-statutory commitment” to establishing an accessibility advisory panel, we struggle to understand why they are so determined not to have this encoded in law as the Commissions’ report recommended. Multiple amendments were brought forward during the Bill’s journey through parliament which would have made this panel a legal requirement, and these were repeatedly shot down by the governing party.  

We fear that, without a statutory obligation, the power of any accessibility panel may be watered down. And if we do not have a meaningful voice in how self-driving technology is developed, regulated, and rolled-out, then there is a risk that our community could be designed out of these vehicles before they even hit the roads.

2. Safety and protections 

Coproduction with disabled people is not only crucial in making sure self-driving vehicles are accessible, it is vital in keeping us safe. 

Take driverless taxis for instance. On one hand, these could be a great option for some disabled people; according to a study from Guide Dogs, 63% of guide dog handlers had been refused a ride by a taxi or PHV driver in the past 12 months, despite this being a criminal offense. But with no driver, access refusals like this could become a relic of the past, providing a significantly more reliable service for people who cannot drive themselves. 

However, while negative driver behaviour is far too common a barrier, doing away with drivers completely presents a whole new set of barriers and safety concerns.  

Drivers do a lot more than simply control the vehicle. They can sight guide people to the car, provide assistance getting in and out, alert people to obstacles or dangers when disembarking the vehicle and respond to passenger emergencies. Without a registered staff member present, travelling by taxi could become more precarious for many disabled people, and we have to be involved in identifying and addressing these additional risks.  

There are also fundamental safety features that cannot be created without input from disabled people. One key example is when a self-driving vehicle needs a human to take over, and issues a command (known as the ‘transition command’) that alerts the user they need to take the wheel. The Bill explicitly states that this command should be designed such that it can be perceived by anyone who may need to take over the vehicle (known as the ‘user-in-charge’), with particular regard for disabled people.  

However, we dispute the idea that it is possible to design the transition command for disabled people unless it is being co-designed with us. If the transition command is not designed accurately, disabled people could be put at risk not only as passengers, but as pedestrians and cyclists too.  

So many issues emerge when non-disabled people presume to know what our community want and need. We therefore believe the Bill should have put a legal duty on developers to co-create these important safety features with our community, using a pan-impairment approach.

3. What now? 

The Automated Vehicles Bill has now passed. It is too late for any amendments to be made to the primary legislation. But luckily this single Bill is the beginning, not the end, of the regulatory framework around self-driving vehicles, and there are many more laws on this subject that are yet to be passed.  

Moving forward, it is therefore vital that secondary legislation and guidance are used to fill in the gaps that we have seen in the current Bill, especially with regard to accessibility. 

We want to see better protections for disabled people in the license conditions for self-driving schemes, and statutory obligations on government and industry to co-produce with our community. The accessibility advisory panel must be established, and have sufficient representation from disabled people across the impairment spectrum.  

Importantly, this panel has to be more than a check box exercise; it must be give disabled people a meaningful seat at the table, and the power to determine what is safe and accessible for our community.  

There are also several other issues that we haven’t discussed here that need to be addressed in more detail by decision makers. One of our key concerns is what will happen to staff across the public transport network if more driverless operations are rolled out. For example, what will happen if local authorities start deploying self-driving buses? We know how important staff are for disabled people on any mode of transport, and we cannot allow thousands of vital assistance roles to be lost in the name of ‘modernisation’. Even where driver roles are lost, staff must be redeployed in other customers facing positions to ensure that the needs of all passengers are met.  

Overall, our main point from two years ago remains the same: disabled people must have a meaningful role in designing the transport of the future. Otherwise, this new technology will simply recreate the problems we face today. 

A man standing in front of a painted brick wall smiling at the camera. He is holding a cane and is wearing glasses, a black jacket and a grey t-shirt. A man standing in front of a painted brick wall smiling at the camera. He is holding a cane and is wearing glasses, a black jacket and a grey t-shirt.

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