Kent Keyser, United Spinal’s Public Policy Fellow

Kent Keyser, public policy fellow at United Spinal Association joined a panel discussion at the Washington Auto Show on January 22 to offer insight on how access to autonomous vehicles could potentially be a game changer for millions of people living with disabilities.

The Plenary Panel Discussion from the Partnership for Autonomous Vehicle Education (PAVE), also included:

  • Mark Rosekind, Chief Policy Officer, Zoox (Moderator)
  • Eric Danko, Head of Federal Affairs, Cruise
  • Robbie Diamond, President and CEO, Securing America’s Future Energy

After an unfortunate mishap with the elevated stage not being accessible to Kent, the entire panel joined him on the floor in front of the stage for the discussion. Although frustrating for attendees to witness, it did drive home the point of the importance of accessibility.

Here’s Kent’s presentation in response to questions during the panel discussion. His perspectives provided attendees with a better understanding of the challenges of daily life as a wheelchair user and how transportation factors into removing some of the barriers to greater independence.

Question 1. There is a lot of focus on public skepticism about AVs. But as any of us who have been in public with a test vehicle know, there is also a lot of public excitement and curiosity. How much of an appetite is there for information about AVs, and how can we satisfy that appetite?

I can certainly speak to an appetite for the transportation that AV promises to deliver.  For tens of millions of people with disabilities and seniors and those in transportation deserts, we are starving for the safe, on demand, accessible and reliable transportation AV can deliver.

I say starving because for untold millions, we don’t have the luxury of transportation alternatives.  In fact, for us, even much of current mass transit remains inaccessible, unreliable and too costly, both in terms of time and money.  Please know, the promise of AV delivering reliable, on-demand, safe and accessible transportation would transform our lives.

In my own case, I live, here, in one of the most accessible transportation cities in the world, but, without exaggeration, I am truly lucky to be with you this morning  and to have been on time because of physical gaps in the dc Metro subway system, which forces me to rely on a very unreliable, often unresponsive, always inflexible paratransit system that makes travel between business appointments almost impossible.

Long ago, I gave up scheduling more than two business meetings on the same day.  I am lucky to make even one.  I have missed hours of work, important business meetings, adaptive fitness sessions (for which I have paid a trainer who often has to wait for me to arrive) and I have pretty much given up on taking any fun trips – except for an occasional movie – all because I cannot rely on my paratransit service.  Accessible autonomous vehicles would transform my world.

So as United Spinal’s President James Weisman has said, AV will be a “game changer” for untold millions.  That is why United Spinal stands ready to assist the AV industry in designing from the ground up the truly inclusive car, that will accommodate my wheelchair and me.  United Spinal will employ its over 70 years of experience and engage our over 50,000 members, 52 chapters, close to 200 support groups and more than 100 rehabilitation facilities and hospital partners nationwide, including 10 distinguished Spinal Cord Injury Model System innovative research Centers.

That means we continue support PAVE in every way possible.  With our help, PAVE spreads the message of the possibilities AV brings, and PAVE helps us spread a simple but important equation to industry, government and consumers alike that in AV  universal access = universal appeal.

When AV works for the disability community, it works for everyone, whetting more and more appetites .  We are already working with Volkswagen and Toyota.  And GM is promising a wheelchair accessible vehicle, right Eric?

So to all you thinkers, designers and dreamers, I have a message –  get to work.  Figure out how to make AV work for me.  Together, let’s build a universal accessible AV from the ground up.

Question 2. Help us learn from your organization’s experience: Could you identify one barrier or obstacle to public understanding and trust, and how have you tried to respond to that obstacle?

Pick a life topic, education, employment, community living and like I said previously, especially transportation, we at United Spinal confront barriers our members still face every day.  According to one study, ”Mitigating transportation related obstacles for individuals with disabilities would enable new employment opportunities for approximately 2 million individuals with disabilities, and save $19 billion annually in healthcare expenditures from missed medical appointments” alone.  So We are constantly showcasing members that beat the barriers down personally and  recognize and advertise their achievements.

Boomer Alert:  I just do not believe people in general, and especially my fellow boomers have looked past the no human driver aspect of av.  I do not think people in general have taken the time to think through all the benefits, the freedom, the independence, in terms of time, and what they can do with that free time, when they do not have to drive.  The just don’t perceive the extra benefits of AV.

Let me give you an example of a perception barrier.  Let me share with you that last June when my association, United Spinal, held our annual Roll on Capitol Hill in which over a hundred of my fellow wheelchair users roll into hundreds of congressional offices to meet with members of Congress and their staff — many In those offices were surprised to learn that advancing AV technologies with legislation was one of United Spinal’s priorities.

Just like the congressional staff didn’t realize how enabling AV would be for wheelchairs users, I don’t think people are focusing on how productive they can be by utilizing AV.  Whether its work or play or heck, just relaxation, AV means more personal time. That is an aspect of AV that PAVE could focus on and everyone across the AV industry would benefit by.

a. Follow-up: Have you drawn any lessons from other industries or the paths of other technology advancements?

We can also take a lesson from a low tech advancement that easily removes a physical barrier we wheelchair users face daily,  access to sidewalks.

Yes, the humble curb cut, initially envisioned as a pathway to knock down sidewalk barriers for those who use wheelchairs.  In effect, curb cuts have made traversing downtowns and neighborhoods safer for EVERYONE, parents with strollers, delivery people, traveler with. Luggage, the list is endless.  Curb cuts = Less falls, less effort in moving all manner of materials and commerce.  So accessibility is not a sole asset belonging to individuals with disabilities, history is replete with examples of greater accessibility serving all manner of individuals and various human industries.

That’s the bigger, broader, bolder message we in the disability community can help PAVE make and points to the tremendous opportunities AV presents to everyone.

Question 3. How can we communicate most effectively about the benefits of AVs, and how important is it to balance our enthusiasm for those benefits with an acknowledgement of the limitations and challenges we face?

Let’s face facts — Accessibility in AV is such a high bar that even Elon Musk isn’t predicting a quick Tesla accessible AV rollout much less a Million accessible vehicles this year.

Naïve Alert:  realizing proprietary information is paramount, seismic shifts in industry, like next generation AV, might just throw players and proprietary information closer together instead of driving  them further apart.  A couple of points along this line:

As a consumer, I hope efforts, like USDOT’s forthcoming AV Inclusive Design Challenge, will yield accessibility breakthroughs that can be wildly adopted across the industry.

And as a red blooded capitalist, I’m encouraged by the industry alliances that are being formed to share and develop AV technologies.

Sometimes different platforms yield healthy competitions and the consumer wins. For instance IOS versus Android.  However, we are not necessarily taking our lives in hand when we have to choose between those operating systems.  But getting in a self driving vehicle is going to be a major safety concern and peace of mind commitment for some time to come with a long proving ground.

So we have to ask, with safety as everyone’s driving concern, Is it really in industry’s or consumers or government’s best interest to have two or more drastically different vehicle platforms competing with one another?

The more industry can come together and consumers can get consistent information on AV advancements that can be adopted as industry and safety standards, the more I think consumers will buy into a new generation of transportation.

a. Follow-up: How do you balance marketing and advertising with providing more objective, factual information?

The beauty of social media is that you can include more substance in your messaging with links galore to studies and survey results as well as ask for consumer feedback

There is also benefit in advertising what we don’t know, like the US DOT inclusive design challenge.  Challenging and freeing intellects and imaginations is among what America does best  — most of the time.  Sometimes we do it best in spite of ourselves.

Like the hard fought success of Gary Starkweather, who just passed away.  The following is from his obituary story in Sunday’s Washington Post:  Mr. Starkweather worked for Xerox in the 1960’s and had what the New Yorker called, “a radical idea.”  Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker in 2011. “The printer, since Gutenberg, had been limited to the function of re-creation: if you wanted to print a specific image or letter, you had to have a physical character or mark corresponding to that image or letter. What Starkweather wanted to do was take the array of bits and bytes, ones and zeros that constitute digital images, and transfer them straight into the guts of a copier. That meant, at least in theory, that he could print anything.”

Mr. Starkweather conducted his work in secret in a hidden corner of a laboratory. “I was running my experiments in the back room behind a black curtain,” he told the New Yorker.

Starkweather made some advances that he shared with his boss but his boss still wasn’t convinced and threatened to lay off Mr. Starkweather’s entire staff.

Long story short — The Xerox 9700 became one of the most successful products in the company’s history, making it possible to print directly from computers and leading to a revolution in printing technology.  “The laser printer is arguably the greatest invention made in a Xerox research center,” Xerox’s chief technology officer, Steve Hoover, said in a statement on the company’s website.

So take note Corporate AV—  balance this — bigger, broader, bolder thinking needs support not a layoff notice.