Podcast: Autonomous Vehicles Provide Mobility for All

Future of Work Podcast, Episode 11

Henry Claypool, policy consultant for the American Association of People with Disabilities, discusses the potential impacts that autonomous vehicles may have in the workplace and other areas of life.

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Intro : [00:00:00] Welcome to the Workology podcast, a podcast for that disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here's Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica : [00:00:26] Welcome to a new series on the Workology podcast that we're kicking off that focuses on the future of work. This series is in collaboration with the Partnership on Accessible Technology, or PEAT. You can learn more about PEAT at PEATworks.org.

Jessica : [00:00:43] Welcome. As we continue our Workology podcast Future of Work series, this series is in collaboration with the Partnership on Accessible Technology, or PEAT. It isn't just the workplace that's evolving, it's the way in which we work. Combined with the way in which we travel to work -- that's also changing. Autonomous vehicles offer a new way in which to travel and transport ourselves and our families. Today we're diving into how autonomous vehicles are changing the future of the workplace. Today I'm joined by Henry Claypool. He's a policy consultant for the AAPD. He's the former director of Health and Human Services Offices on Disability and a founding Principle Deputy Administrator of the Administration for Community Living. Henry, welcome to the Workology Podcast.

Jessica : [00:01:29] Can you tell me a little bit more about your background?

Jessica : [00:01:36] Yes, so I sustained a spinal cord injury back in 1982 and I've been using a wheelchair ever since, which has taught me a lot and allowed me to share some of what I've learned with others and I hope to do some of that today around autonomous vehicles and how they might work for people with disabilities.

Jessica : [00:01:59] Well this is a perfect segue. Thank you for that. We're talking today about autonomous cars and the impact that technology can provide for all people, including those with disabilities. Can you walk us through, first, what an autonomous car is for those who might not be aware?

Henry : [00:02:15] Sure and forgive this lengthy background. It all depends. The autonomous features really are focused on creating a better driver or a safer automobile. So today there are already a number of features that are available on cars that are sold new. So good examples are laying finding controls, you know your car will alert you when you drift out of your lane. There's emergency braking. So, when you are closing in on an object too quickly it can sense it and slow the car down. There are a number of features like cameras that help you see what's going on around you. But the common theme of these features is that they're all helping create a kind of better driver and take autonomous vehicles at their highest operating level really don't need a human being any longer. So the car is capable of driving itself and hence the term self-driving car comes about. But right now, automobile manufacturers, technology companies and others are experimenting with different levels of autonomy. Some, like you may be familiar with Tesla, have a car that you drive and it has some driver assist features, and others are building vehicles that are really meant to be used only in these fully eponymous modes where it doesn't require someone to steer, brake or otherwise control the car. 

Jessica : [00:04:18] And those features really make the car more accessible for every person, every individual.

Henry: [00:04:21] Right, I think it's interesting, the term accessible. So, yes, it makes it possible for say a person with a disability who can’t get a driver’s license to use the vehicle. For example, someone with epilepsy might be able to now use an autonomous vehicle since they don't have to drive. They could hail one of these cars that could come and pick them up. The same for a blind person, they'd be able to navigate into the car, use it, and wouldn't be required to see much of what's going on. The car would take care of that. But then there are others like wheelchair users that need some additional changes to make sure that the vehicle is accessible to them and that they can use it. So, there are a couple of things going on at the same time with autonomous vehicles to make sure that people with disabilities can benefit.

Jessica : [00:05:26] Great. And let's talk about some of the benefits of autonomous vehicles. Can you walk us through some of those?

Henry : [00:05:33] Yeah, I think there are numerous and, you know, these aren't insignificant. The idea that people with disabilities would be able to take their kids to school, that they could go out to dinner with the family, go visiting friends in the community. These are all things that with disabilities have historically encountered barriers to community integration. And so these autonomous vehicles really should be quite helpful in making these simple everyday tasks easier for people with certain disabilities to engage in. There are of course other issues that I think warrant some consideration. One is certainly employment. When we look at what people with disabilities tell us about why they aren't working, one of the key barriers that’s cited is a lack of transportation. And so we really hope that this technology, once it’s fielded more broadly, will increase the mobility of the population, reduce that transportation barrier, and result in more people with disabilities being able to join the workforce. And still there is another issue for certain people with disabilities that have health-related issues that need to interact with the healthcare system more frequently. It's important to stay on top of one's health, make sure that you're accessing the services and supports that you need to remain healthy. Getting to the doctor's office to take care of things in a timely manner and avoid the need for urgent care or emergency situations which often can result in unnecessary hospitalization. So, you know, the potential here is really significant and the implications just for the healthcare system are quite profound when you think about older adults and their need to interact with the health care system as they age. This could be a real boon in helping people get timely care so that they can continue to remain healthy and live in their homes as long as possible. You know, that's a good summary of the health care benefits. And the employment benefits, I think we'll still need to look more deeply into and better understand some of the other issues that people with disabilities encounter so that we can make sure that we increase the rate of employment for the population.

Jessica : [00:08:33] One of the areas -- going back to employment -- that I feel like autonomous vehicles can really help and I think some employers are offering this, certainly in Silicon Valley where Google and Facebook have to bus transportation from the city of San Francisco. So you take the Google bus down to Mountain View. And I feel like autonomous vehicles could be a really great way to make your office more accessible for all types of people, especially for those who maybe don't have cars, or are relying on public transportation, or have disabilities and it's just it's just hard to get around and do those daily life things.

Henry : [00:09:17] Yeah I think the transformative nature of a lot of autonomous vehicles really is something that we shouldn't underestimate. The reality is that it's likely to change patterns in car ownership, how people use them, where they work, what they do with their time. So it really is pretty powerful. If you think about being in a vehicle and actually being able to work on your way to work, that really changes the way one that goes about taking on their day. So if we increase the hours of productivity because people are no longer kind of neutralized while they're stuck in traffic, there's a big boon there. I think the idea that employers might use this as a benefit to their employees is certainly possible. But this idea that we're already seeing take shape, which is ride sharing, and the idea that people actually aren’t owning vehicles particularly when they live in dense urban areas, and they're accessing ride sharing platforms like Lyft or Uber to get around. I think that's just the very beginning of this. And when you see autonomous vehicles more fully deployed, I think you'll begin to see them operating in these ride sharing models. The vehicles are likely to be quite expensive to purchase and therefore it'll be much more likely that people would purchase a ride in the same way they do with a ride sharing option so that they can get from point A to Point B, they don't have to worry about parking. There are a whole bunch of benefits. Eventually it will take the number of cars off the road, hopefully, and we'll see a more sustainable environment in the fact that these cars will likely be electrified and we won't see as much pollution coming from the vehicles. And the way they actually use space where they park, how often they're used, these things are I think are going to be part of a transformation of our urban core and they’ll gradually spread out to people that are living in the suburbs and then some of the bigger challenges we probably face are in rural areas.

Jessica : [00:12:05] Going back to the more urban areas, there's a new report out from Apartment List and it is about commute times. So, nationwide, one in 36 commuters are considered “super commuters” and those are people who spend more than 90 minutes traveling to work each day. And I feel like, as I'm driving here in Austin to the office this morning, it's increasingly becoming congested. I feel like autonomous vehicles will help to make commutes better for everyone, we can get a little work done on our way to work, and people can get where they need to go about their business and live their life. The other benefit is just the environmental benefit. The less cars on the road, the less fossil fields being burned into the air. And we can just be more environmentally conscious and focused.

Henry : [00:13:01] Yeah, I think all of those things are touted as real benefits of this technology. Accessibility is among those, or increased mobility for people with disabilities, but really I think the top-line takeaways for the dominant society are the ones that you're you've identified: looking at the reduced air pollution, how people actually go about driving in their use patterns and transportation, where they live. These things are going to change the shapes of our cities and how we go about moving from place to place.

Jessica : [00:13:48] I know you mentioned that Tesla has some autonomous features and there’s a growing lists of others who are adding those. And, of course, there are a number of self-driving cars out there that are being tested and modified and changed and getting ready to be out on the road. What is the timeline for something like this to be more mainstream?

Henry : [00:14:12] Well, I think it's an interesting question. There are a number of factors that come into play. Of course, the technology has to be ironclad. The reason we're doing this, largely, is to reduce the number of lives that are compromised due to traffic accidents. And safety is a key feature. So making sure that the technology is working and is an improvement on the human driver is important. I think we're nearing that point and the readiness of the technology to assume the responsibilities of the driver. There are a whole host of issues outside of that, like the public's ability to adopt this type of mode of transportation and embrace it and appreciate it. There are transition issues when we have autonomous vehicles operating on the road. How do they interact with other drivers? These are the things that we’re really just beginning to learn about. There are few pilot sites across the country. Arizona and California are the two states, I think, where most of the activity is occurring, where the testing of these vehicles is underway. And I think we're going to learn a lot in the next couple of years about how this integration aspect will go. You know, autonomous vehicles operating on the same roads as people driving cars. To your question – when will they be ubiquitous and they'll be available and able to drive anywhere and everywhere – I think we're still a ways away from that. I hesitate to give a projection since I think they're often wrong. And it depends on so many factors. But I do think watching the technology as it improves, what we've learned from these early pilot programs, and how quickly the public embraces this mode of transportation, those are important indicators of how quickly this will spread.

Jessica : [00:16:38] Let's take a bit of a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you're listening to the Workology podcast in partnership with PEAT. Today, we're talking with Henry Claypool on all things autonomous vehicles and the future of work.

Announcer : [00:16:51] The Workology podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at PEATworks.org, that's P-E-A-T-w-o-r-k-s dot org.

Jessica : [00:17:20] I think that for a lot of people it's hard to think about a self-driving car, but I will say that having lived in the Mountain View, California area for several years, it was very common to see the Google car driving down my street and there was somebody in the passenger side or the backseat and there's no one driving the vehicle. The first couple of times, it was kind of like oh my gosh what is that. But then it just became a regular thing. So I think that once we talk through the benefits and think about the accessibility pieces and the availability, people can have access to transportation to go where they need to go and whenever they need to go. As long as we get the technology right, it makes sense for it to become an important, critical part of our lives.

Henry : [00:18:08] Yeah, I think the safety I mentioned earlier is really a critical factor. We're seeing the number of people who lose their lives increasing now on public roads. And it's largely due to driver distraction. People, as you know, have more ways of staying in touch with one another, so the smartphone goes off and somebody is distracted and that potentially leads to an accident. We need to really focus on driving that number of people that are injured or killed down. And I think this technology holds the greatest promise to do that. So, it's interesting in the debate where there seems to be some comfort level or acceptance with the fact that we lose over 37,000 people each year due to driver error on our roads. And, you know, that's equivalent to having a 777 crash every day. And if we were comfortable with that level of failure in our air carrier services…I can't imagine why people wouldn't want to see those same benefits extended to vehicles. So I think we need to sharpen the focus of our conversation around safety and the potential benefits, certainly those that people with disabilities will see in the future, to help the public really appreciate why it's important to begin integrating this technology into our transportation systems.

Jessica : [00:20:00] Henry, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Where can people go to learn more about autonomous vehicles and the things that you're working on?

Henry : [00:20:09] Oh, I think there are a couple of resources that are just taking shape. I would recommend staying in touch with groups like the American Association of People with Disabilities, the National Council on Independent Living, and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. These organizations are all working on autonomous vehicles today, making sure that we can get them operating on public roads as quickly and as safely and safely as possible. I’ll throw another one in: the National Federation for the Blind has been doing a lot of work autonomous vehicles. And I think you'll see these groups coming together in the near future to form a more mainstream advocacy effort to push for the deployment of these, particularly, fully autonomous vehicles that can help people who are unable to get a drivers license.

Jessica : [00:21:11] Thank you so much Henry. We will include the list of resources in the transcript of the podcast over on the Workology site. So if you just go over to the Workology site and put autonomous vehicles in the search box, you'll be able to be connected to the transcript of this podcast and get access to all those links and resources that Henry just mentioned.

Jessica : [00:21:34] Henry's insights give us food for thought when it comes to how technology is changing our lives in ways we might not have considered or imagined. Mobility is important, whoever you are, and autonomous vehicles can be a game changer. Whether it's lessening your commute to work or making it possible for you to be mobile, allowing for personal independence for yourself and your family. Thank you for joining the Workology podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader who's tired of the status quo. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell. Until next time, you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our previous podcast episodes. 

Exit : [00:22:10] Production Services for the Workology podcast with Jessica Miller-Merrell are provided by TotalPicture.com.