Gordon McCullough, CEO of the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers, talks self-driving.

Huge trust issue: Why self-driving must keep its accessibility promise

With improved accessibility consistently quoted as a key benefit of self-driving, it was shocking to hear Gordon McCullough, CEO of the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC), warn Zenzic CAM Innovators 2024 of rising disillusionment.

So, in the spirit of Prof Paul Newman’s challenge to “ask difficult questions”, we invited McCullough to expand on his assertion that the disabled community feel excluded when new technologies, like connected and automated vehicles, are introduced.

Gordon McCullough, CEO of the RiDC, talks self-driving
Gordon McCullough, CEO of the RiDC, talks self-driving

What do you see as the likely impacts of self-driving for disabled people?

“Self-driving can clearly be a transformative technology for a lot of disabled people, particularly those who find public transport inaccessible or cannot drive. In a world where you are unable to drive, whether that’s due to a vision or dexterity impairment, or a learning disability, the first and last mile is a huge issue. An on-demand self-driving service, taking you from your door to wherever you need to go – a transport hub, hospital or shopping centre – could be a gamechanger, theoretically a wonderful step forward.

“The problem is nobody’s really talking about how to design these things to make them accessible, and nobody’s really talking to disabled people about their concerns. We’re actively working to address that now – doing research with TRL into disabled peoples’ attitudes to connected and autonomous vehicles, and doing webinars and panels with Zenzic to engage more with the self-driving industry.”

Can you give some examples of the transport challenges that need solving?

“For starters, the Motability Foundation found that disabled people are 38% less likely to use UK public transport than non-disabled people. That’s a damning statistic and it hasn’t changed in over a decade. The fact is our public transport services have structural, financial and attitudinal issues which act as barriers to disabled people.

“There are approximately two million people registered blind or partially sighted people in the UK. Street environments alone present enough challenges for them, things like travelling on the tube can be fraught with difficulties – from annoyances like people petting their guide dogs, to the lack of audio feedback on contactless payment terminals, to anxieties like ‘what if something goes wrong?’

“As we’ve seen with charging points for electric vehicles, the anxieties are multiplied for disabled people. To try and understand the pain points, and then to use design to build trust and acceptance, that’s still a fanciful concept for a lot of people. It should be considered best practice.”

Is human-to-human customer service essential to building trust in self-driving?

“Regardless of whether you’re disabled or not, there will initially be a degree of anxiety about travelling in a driverless vehicle, even if there’s a member of staff on board. The existence of very responsive support is vital, but we don’t yet know what level of assurance is enough. If there’s a special assistance button – somebody on the end of the line who knows where you are, understands your impairments and can sort the problem quickly, or get somebody out to help you – is that enough?

“How does the provision of such clear customer service affect the business case? Profit margin aside, what about the social case? Time and again we find that when a technology runs away with itself, disabled people almost inevitably get forgotten. Companies then go back and try to put fixes in place, and end up spending a lot more money than they would if they had started by asking: how do we make this accessible for everyone, not just 80% of the population?”

Have your say on self-driving by joining The RiDC Panel
Have your say on self-driving by joining The RiDC Panel

Any disabled readers interested in joining The RiDC Panel, the charity’s 4,000-strong research group, please visit ridc.org.uk