Federal regulators are expected to issue guidance to automakers this summer on the operational and design elements that should be considered before introducing automated cars onto the market, and the disabled community wants to make sure their specific mobility needs are on the list.

It will be at least a decade before cars are fully autonomous and suitable for disabled operators, the National Council on Disability (NCD) estimates. Still, the group is trying to get head start on the process by working with car companies like Audi to help develop features that would allow disabled drivers, many of whom are not licensed, to operate self-driving vehicles.

For example, on July 12 NCD Chairman Clyde Terry became the first blind driver to experience Audi’s prototype SAE Level 3 automated vehicle which has been named "Jack." Terry piloted the car in hands-free mode from Washington’s Capitol Hill to Interstate-395 and then back through city streets.

"As a person who has been blind since birth, being able to pilot a car like 'Jack'… gives me a glimpse of what the future will bring for people like myself who have always had to rely on other drivers to get around,” Terry told Bloomberg BNA. “We’re not quite there yet, of course, but by taking a careful, step-by-step approach it seems pretty clear that the technology is well on its way. It’s exciting and I’m optimistic.”


Self-driving Audi


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) plans to issue industry guidance as well as model policy for states by the end of the summer. Terry said he hopes the regulators will include recommendations for accessibility requirements for people with disabilities. NHTSA told Bloomberg BNA that it has been encouraging autonomous vehicle manufacturers to work with the blind and disabled communities.

But don’t expect the guidance to resolve a key potential roadblock for disabled people seeking to operate self-driving cars, which is whether states should allow unlicensed drivers to operate the cars, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently told reporters.

Some states, including California, are drafting regulations that would require a licensed driver in autonomous cars. Terry said that is why Congress needs to step in and change licensing laws.

"[I]t seems that to be fully inclusive that Congress should expressly forbid discrimination on the basis of disability by states or any other government authorities in licensing requirements, and should withhold federal highway funds to states that do not comply,” he said.