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Politics & Policy

Do robotaxis benefit people with disabilities? San Francisco activists are split

Sharon Giovinazzo, CEO of LightHouse, a nonprofit organization for the blind and visually impaired, opens the door of a Waymo autonomous car with her guide dog Pilot in San Francisco on Monday. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The rise of robotaxis has divided San Francisco, and people living with disabilities are no exception. Whereas many envision a new world of mobility, others fret about how regulators should proceed. 

Ahead of a vote Thursday on whether to lift robotaxi restrictions—a vote that has been delayed twice already—disability advocacy groups have written letters to the California Public Utilities Commission that express widely different opinions about the technology. 

Groups like San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco and the National Disability Institute have called for an immediate end to any restrictions on autonomous vehicles like the ones Waymo and Cruise operate so that more people can access them and the technology can progress.

Sharon Giovinazzo, CEO of the nonprofit LightHouse for the Blind, finds the vehicles reliable for pickups, safe and—most importantly—won’t make a fuss about her guide dog. 

“It truly has the power to transform lives,” said Giovinazzo, who has been blind for 23 years. “Across the nation, people are intrigued. It’s another choice.”

Driverless vehicle companies such as Waymo and Cruise have highlighted the support they have from people with disabilities. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

But groups like California Council of the Blind, Senior and Disability Action in San Francisco and the Consortium for Constituents With Disabilities have raised concerns about passenger safety and affordability. 

To be clear, not all driverless vehicles are robotaxis. But given that San Francisco is replete with stories about robotaxis driving into emergency scenes and construction sites, California Council for the Blind wrote to the commission last month seeking a delay to the decision. The visually impaired are particularly vulnerable until the underlying technology advances to a level where rider safety is assured, it said. 

Shaya French, transit organizing director with Senior and Disability Action, feels autonomous vehicles are simply not ready yet. Further, they’re skeptical about affordability over the long run. 

The group is also concerned about the vehicles reported to drop people off away from curbs, and having an increased number of cars on San Francisco roads.

“We don’t think autonomous vehicles are there,” French told The Standard. “If they’re held to account by regulators, we can ensure the public still has a voice in making sure the affordability, accessibility and safety still happen—even when it’s not profitable.”

At the national level, the Consortium for Constituents With Disabilities wrote a letter to Congress last week outlining suggestions for legislation on autonomous vehicles. This includes an advisory council, incentives for manufacturers to build wheelchair-accessible cars and requirements to consider the needs of disabled passengers. It also expressed concern about potential impacts on public transit, which people with disabilities often rely on. 

Giovinazzo agrees that autonomous vehicles need to be accountable to the public but doesn’t want to see the technology taken over by bureaucracy. She also offered praise to the companies for bringing advocates into the fold from the beginning.  

Both Waymo and Cruise formed accessibility councils last year to help test their vehicles and share feedback before development is done, not after. There is not yet a wheelchair-accessible vehicle available, although Cruise is developing one called Origin Mobility.  

“Waymo gains critical insights into specific accessibility needs and considerations from our riders with disabilities, helping us refine our technology, design user-friendly interfaces, and implement features that cater to diverse mobility requirements, ultimately leading to a more inclusive and reliable autonomous driving service for all riders,” Heather Aijian, Waymo’s public affairs manager, said in a statement. 

French said it’s clear to see how the emerging technology is appealing to other disability advocacy groups. But advocates are not quite aligned on how to move things forward.  

“We’re all pretty agreed on what the problem is: that it’s difficult to get around with a disability,” French said. “It’s definitely an issue that’s kind of dividing the disability community.” 

The commission takes up the vote on Thursday at 11 a.m.