By Steven Aquino, Forbes
In a blog post published on Friday, autonomous car maker Cruise announced the formation of a so-called Cruise Accessibility Council. The San Francisco-based and General Motors-backed company wrote the Accessibility Council is yet another step forward in its steadfast commitment to making the future of transport “more accessible, equitable, and inclusive” to everyone, regardless of ability level.
Cruise describes the Accessibility Council as “a cross-disability group of leaders and advocates who will provide external, independent input on Cruise’s product, programs, and approach to accessibility.” Feedback from the group will be instrumental in “[continuing] to develop all our services.” The Accessibility Council is comprised of seventeen people representing various disability organizations, including the National Federation of the Blind, the United Spinal Association, and the National Association of the Deaf. The Council members, Cruise said, “bring a wide range of disciplines and lived experiences to the table, with the mission of realizing a more accessible transportation future.”
“Self-driving technology has the potential to help people overcome numerous mobility challenges. But that reality cannot be achieved in a vacuum—it has to be done with direct input from people with disabilities,” wrote Michele Lee, who leads accessibility efforts at Cruise, in their announcement posted to its website. “I came to Cruise as an advocate within the disability community myself, and the [popular in the community] refrain ‘nothing about us, without us’ rings true.”
Lee, who lives in Chicago, has played an integral role in seeing Cruise’s Council go from conception to fruition. She became disabled herself in a car accident, suffering neck and spinal cord injuries. An electric wheelchair user for close to two decades, Lee’s injuries meant she was unable to drive again so accessible transportation is a topic very close to her heart. So close, in fact, she serves on the board of the Chicago Transit Authority. Everybody wants to get around and go places, but as a wheelchair user, Lee finds relying on public transit and ride-share problematic because they’re not consistently accommodating to disabled people.
Enter Cruise and their autonomous driving technologies.
“I’ve been an advocate for people with disabilities ever since becoming a member of this community and just fighting for access to just everything,” Lee said to me earlier this week in an exclusive interview via videoconference ahead of today’s news. “It’s been a journey, and transportation has been a real focus for me.”
Lee works on Cruise’s public affairs team. She described her primary responsibility is to “engage with disability advocates and advocacy groups and the disability community at large to understand the needs of the population. Obviously, disability is very nuanced and it’s very diverse.” In terms of a car’s functionality, Lee is in the trenches working with teammates to ensure Cruise’s vehicles embody the company’s institutional beliefs on accessibility and inclusion.
The advent of the Accessibility Council is representative of Cruise’s ethos around disability inclusion, according to Lee. The company has a long history of partnerships with the disability community, and the Accessibility Council stands on the shoulders on those bonds. Lee is especially proud of, and excited for, the Accessibility Council because it’s an earnest attempt at not merely improving the literal accessibility of Cruise’s products—it’s a conduit to constant conversation.
“We’ve long engaged, Cruise as a whole, with a lot of different disability advocacy groups,” Lee said. “We’re really trying to formalize these relationships and bring everyone into a room and make it a little bit more diverse in terms of all the disabilities together having a voice [and] learning from each other.”
Beyond the broader societal representation angle, Lee explained, somewhat jokingly, another reason for creating the Council is sheer pragmatism. She talks to people all the time. “I just thought it would be a way to make it easier,” she said. “If we’re meeting quarterly, then I can save on the [amount] of meetings.”
As for the future, Lee keenly shared Cruise has even bigger ambition that, of course, is mindful of inclusivity and empathy. She told me the company is currently developing a “purpose-built vehicle from the ground up to be wheelchair accessible,” which she added is a first of its kind. The minivan-like vehicle is known as the Origin Mobility. The project is being worked on in collaboration with GM, with Lee telling me the car’s safety standards will be “amazing.” Cruise is doing user testing in the Bay Area, and maintains a database of people with accessibility needs. “We’re always trying to expand and get new folks to come and test our products, including the wheelchair accessible vehicle,” Lee said.
The Origin Mobility, combined with Cruise’s autonomous driving technology, is quite representative of what accessible transport can be like for disabled people in the future. Lee calls self-driving tech a “game-changer” as an assistive technology because of what it allows for people who are ostensibly immobile due to their disability. To wit, Lee acknowledged the fact not everyone leaves near a bus stop or train stop, let alone have a driver’s license. Ergo, the rise of autonomous driving means a vehicle like Cruise’s will “reliably come get you,” Lee said to me.
Ultimately, fully autonomous vehicles will enable a newfound freedom for the disability community. A person like Lee can go anywhere, at any time, without being at the mercy of public transit’s machinations or the goodwill of other people.
The bottom line has no hyperbole: self-driving cars is accessibility at its zenith.
“It’s going to enable independence,“ Lee said. “It’s going to enable freedom to move about as you want and live your life. I am so excited for the day that Origin Mobility is on the streets. I dream of it honestly—I have to always rely on somebody to drive me, or a bus driver, a train conductor, Uber driver, Lyft driver, or taxi driver. [With autonomous cars], I’m not always relying on someone. I want to want to go places and I want to do things. I know I’m not alone in that. People with disabilities want to live life. This is going to really be a game-changer.”
Cruise is actively soliciting feedback on its efforts with the Accessibility Council and the Origin Mobility. The company has an open call for interested parties to join its accessibility research studies, which Cruise says is a paid opportunity.