For Americans with mobility impairments, just getting around can be a challenge. Public transit that accommodates for the disabled is inconsistent and even non-existent in some places. Purchasing an adaptive van can be as expensive as a supercar. But autonomous cars may provide an affordable and radical solution.
I have a personal stake in the matter. My wife is a wheelchair user and drives a 2008 Sienna XLE with a Braun conversion. Without that van, she would not have been able to independently go to school and work. By the way, it was $56,000 including the conversion, but we didn’t have much choice otherwise.
Public transportation in our area absolutely sucks, and transport for the disabled is even worse. New Jersey Access Link has an hour window for drop-off and pickup, and they will only deviate 1/4 mile from a NJ Transit bus stop. That means a lot of waiting and a lot of “walking.” Even a big city like New York can be difficult for those in wheelchairs, most buses don’t have lifts, and the majority of subway stations don’t have elevators. There are accessible cabs, but that is not really an affordable long term solution.
This situation seems to be mostly an American problem: Why is it easier for a wheelchair user to get around in Venice Italy that is 1,500 years old and mostly water than it is to navigate the biggest, most modern city in the world? It’s because public transit in this country has largely been an afterthought, whereas in Europe they invest in the infrastructure and make it usable for all people, able-bodied or otherwise.
So for many Americans in wheelchairs who want to live a normal life, they have to buy their own vehicle. A 2015 Sienna Limited with a basic Braun conversion is upwards of $70,000. I have seen converted vans with highly complex hand controls, price over $100,000. Even pre-owned vans in decent condition can be $30,000 or more.
What is a disabled person do to if they can’t afford a van and don’t have access to even the crappiest public transportation, but want to live a fulfilling and productive life that requires them to travel? A company called Kenguru has a solution... or at least part of the solution.
The Kenguru EV has an approximate price of about $25,000, but it isn’t quite ready for use on all US roads. It is currently categorized as a “Neighborhood Electric Vehicle” and is limited to 45 mph. While Kenguru is currently taking deposits, it will probably be some time before we see their cars cruising around our towns.
However, it is the Kenguru concept combined with the future of mobility from Silicon Valley that can revolutionize accessible transport. With Google and possibly even Apple getting into the autonomous mobility game, it would not be far fetched to have one of those companies adapt the Kenguru model to one of their existing platforms. These tech giants have the technology and the resources to create an adaptive vehicle that is not only affordable (think subscription-based rather than outright purchase), but also a mobility platform for anyone with a disability.
Currently, a disabled person has to pass an adaptive driver’s test. Many people that are quadriplegic, suffer from spasticity (muscle spasms), or other health issues simply don’t have the ability to operate a vehicle. They must depend on family and friends to give them a ride, or be at the mercy of a seriously inadequate public transportation system.
With an autonomous vehicle, there is no need for specialized hand controls for the wide variety of needs across the disability spectrum, though course some type of manual override for safety purposes would have to be built in.
Imagine this scenario: Instead of sitting for an hour at a bus stop braving the elements for para-transit (that does not make change for your fare... seriously, they don’t in some areas!), a wheelchair user schedules a Kenguru/Apple/Google autonomous transport from an app. The vehicle arrives at their location at a specific time and takes them safely wherever they need to go: to work, school, a medical appointment, or to a family/friend’s house. There would be no waiting and no limitations.
Google has already mentioned that one of their goals is to give underserved populations access to to transportation. They even sent a blind guy to Taco Bell!
As exciting as this all is, we still have a long way to go before autonomous cars are widely adopted and adapted for disabled travel. As enthusiasts we get a little nervous about autonomous vehicles, but many of us take the act of driving for granted.
For the disabled, an autonomous and accessible vehicle connected to a massive transportation infrastructure would give these people the freedom they need.
(H/T to Bob C)
If you have a question, a tip, or something you would like to to share about car-buying, drop me a line at AutomatchConsulting@gmail.com and be sure to include your Kinja handle.