Driverless Cars Have Potential To Benefit Those With Disabilities, Lawmaker Says

File photograph shows the rear of a Lexus SUV equipped with Google self-driving sensors during a media preview of Google's prototype autonomous vehicles in Mountain View, Calif. (Reuters photo by Elijah Nouvelage)
File photograph shows the rear of a Lexus SUV equipped with Google self-driving sensors during a media preview of Google’s prototype autonomous vehicles in Mountain View, Calif. (Reuters photo by Elijah Nouvelage)

Phil Kragness cannot travel like many Minnesotans.

A blind double-amputee, Kragness and others with disabilities would like to visit places throughout the state.

“People with disabilities have money to spend,” he said Tuesday, advocating legislation that would establish a task force with the mission of making sure people with disabilities could benefit from driverless vehicles.

A state Senate committee passed the measure, although it must win other committee support before landing in front of the full Senate.

“I want to help ensure that these vehicles … are accessible to people with disabilities,” Kragness said.

The bill by Sen. Matt Schmit, D-Red Wing, would establish a 19-person panel to look into the issue. It is to report to the Legislature by the end of 2018 about the potential that driverless vehicles could help those with disabilities.

The task force would launch a demonstration project, with driverless vehicles carrying Minnesotans with disabilities.

“It is an opportunity to bring our public policy up to par with where our technology has taken us,” Schmit said.

Leili Fatehi of the Self-Driving Minnesota organization said that lack of mobility “is a profound obstacle” to participating in everyday life, from attending classes to taking part in social events.

The legislation would “significantly improve the transportation independence” of not only Minnesotans with disabilities, but elderly residents as well, Fatehi said. By 2030, she added, the number of Minnesotans older than 65 will double, and as people age, they could benefit from driverless cars.

Autonomous vehicles could especially help greater Minnesota, where Kragness said he could visit and spend his money. Fatehi said people living in areas away from the Twin Cities also would be able to get around easier since many areas lack public transit.

The cars can help those with disabilities “live and play in the community of their choice,” added Joan Willshire of the Minnesota State Council on Disability.

Fatehi and Schmit said that the driverless vehicles may hit the market any time between 2020 and 2035, but the senator said more than 1.4 million miles already have been put on such cars.

“The conversation is early enough we can impact the technology and its application,” Schmit said.

In the demonstration project, a vehicle operator would be required to have a driver’s license.

The state would spend $4 million on the project.

Driverless vehicles have been in the news, especially after the first crash in which a driverless car was blamed. Driverless cars have been in other accidents, but the wrecks were blamed on human drivers.

A Google-designed and owned car last month changed lanes and ran into a bus in California. State law there requires a person to be in the driver’s seat, but news reports indicate the person thought the bus would slow down or stop to allow the Google car to merge.

The car was going 2 miles per hour and was damaged by the bus, which was going 15 mph.