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Driverless cars: a new opportunity for independence in the spinal injury community?

Getting around easily is something that many people take for granted.

However, for people living with disabilities, popping to the shops or visiting family can be much more challenging.


Statistics from the Department of Transport show that people classed as disabled are more likely to be in a household without access to a car and in 2019, disabled adults in England made 26% fewer trips than those without a disability

This clear transport disadvantage can directly affect their ability to socialise, access healthcare and enjoy a reasonable quality of life. Fortunately, this could soon be a thing of the past.

Autonomous vehicles: the latest development in vehicle technology

Tesla are well known for their cutting-edge software which includes valuable autopilot active safety and convenience features. Their most recent update, known as Version 7.1, also features the first iteration of a new technology called Summon. Summon enables complete automation of many aspects of the driving experience, including parking.

You can exit the vehicle and prompt the car to take care of the rest – enter a garage or parking space, park itself and shut down. Currently, Summon is still in the Beta stage. However, the aim is for owners to be able to use it to summon their vehicle wherever they are, with your Tesla able to drive anywhere across the country to meet you.

The release of Tesla’s Version 7.1 software marks progression towards the development of fully autonomous vehicles, where vehicles will operate completely independently, without a human driver.

The aim of autonomous vehicles, or AVs as they are commonly known, will primarily be to improve road safety by removing the biggest contributing factor in accidents – human error, the main cause of more than 90% of road accidents. Driver assistance technologies in modern vehicles already help to prevent accidents and injuries, as well as save lives. AVs offer far more than just safer, easier and more convenient driving. In fact, autonomous vehicles could soon revolutionise transport for people with disabilities such as spinal injuries.

Autonomous vehicles: the chance of a better future for spinal cord injured people?

It’s impossible to overstate the benefits that autonomous vehicles could provide for people with disabilities who don’t currently have access to transport. These can be broken down into several areas:

  • Access to education, training and employment. Charity Scope have reported that disabled people are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people. Transportation to a place of employment is thought to play a role in this statistic, with those individuals without access to a car and/or living in rural areas much less likely to attend a job with any consistency. Similarly, having to battle public transport to get in and out of work can be prohibitive. AV availability could enable thousands more people with disabilities to access education, training and employment that can unlock financial independence.
  • Improved mental health. Unsurprisingly, being physically isolated often leads to feelings of emotional isolation. Studies have found that depression is the most common psychological issue following a spinal cord injury, and this can be compounded by isolation from family, friends and other support networks. Using AVs to access support, go to work and participate in ‘normal’ activities could be invaluable to the mental health of people living with long-term disability.
  • Physical access. Modern cars are getting wider, but with an increasing number of vehicles on the road, parking spaces remain fairly small, limiting access. However, with an autonomous vehicle you can simply request the car to move out of the space so that doors can open wider, enabling easier access for those that need it. It’s thought that in time, driverless vehicles that are designed specifically to support those with long-term disabilities could also be pre-prepared with any additional access equipment, such as ramps or tail lifts.

What are the legal repercussions for accidents in AVs likely to be?

Unsurprisingly, many people are still cautious about the concept of driverless cars, particularly when it comes to the considerable costs that could be incurred in the event of an accident – both in terms of damage to the vehicle and any injuries that are sustained.

Lucie Clinch, senior associate injury knowledge lawyer at Stewarts, has stated: “The current law (the Autonomous and Electric Vehicles Act 2018) includes a direct right of action against the insurer of an AV where someone is injured in an accident caused, or partly caused by an AV driving in fully autonomous mode”.  This is intended to enable swift access to compensation as the government seek to remove blame from ‘human drivers’ provided that the car was driving fully autonomously, and the driver hadn’t been asked to take back control of the vehicle.

Nevertheless, there are many grey areas still to be considered, such as data access, software issues or installation of the latest safety updates and questions over whether the car was ‘driving itself’, all of which could make insurers less likely to readily deal with any claims.

it is intended that insurers and manufacturers will work together if there have been any software failures etc so that the injured victim can access compensation from the insurer without involvement in those disputes

Lucie Clinch, senior associate injury knowledge lawyer at Stewarts

While the regulation and monitoring of AVs is still to be confirmed, it is believed that removing the risk of human error means that AVs will eventually be significantly safer than human-piloted vehicles.

The road to full vehicle automation is getting shorter. Recent reports of incidents using current autopilot technology have knocked public confidence in AVs and there is a lot for manufacturers to do to restore it. Nevertheless, if manufacturers get it right and consider the benefits that the technology could have on the less mobile demographic, the opportunity for greater freedom for individuals with disabilities is just around the corner.




https://www.scope.org.uk/media/disability-facts-figures/ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4535798/