Self-driving vehicles have the potential to revolutionize transportation for all Americans and will be especially beneficial for the more than fifty-seven million Americans with a disability. This Note offers a primer on a rapidly-developing area of law and policy that will permanently alter how Americans interact with transportation. While public availability of autonomous vehicles is anticipated as early as next year, widespread use of these vehicles is likely at least a decade away. The lag between current-day prototypes and future widespread public availability provides lawmakers, self-driving vehicle manufacturers, and the disability community an important opportunity to work together to shape policy, vehicle design, and public opinion about the autonomous vehicle revolution.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) “assure[s] equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for” people with disabilities. Almost three decades later, however, inaccessible transportation and lack of transportation options still remain significant barriers to full, equal access to and enjoyment of educational, employment, civic, social, and community opportunities by people with disabilities. This Note begins by describing the basics of autonomous vehicle technologies, how these technologies are progressing, and how they can be utilized by people with disabilities. Considering the needs of people with disabilities at every step of the way to full vehicle autonomy is crucial to ensuring an accessible transportation future. This Note explores some of the barriers to access of autonomous vehicles, such as the reluctance of transportation network companies Uber and Lyft to offer accessible transportation to riders with disabilities, as well as potentially discriminatory state licensing schemes for autonomous vehicle operation. The Note concludes by outlining the ways that state and federal regulation of autonomous vehicles could affect people with disabilities, assesses the impact of these regulations, and discusses proposed federal legislation and agency regulations that could reduce barriers to access considerably. Implicated in each of these issues and opportunities is the ADA, since it is the bedrock of disability civil rights in the United States and the primary means of enforcement against discrimination and exclusion.

As the United States enters a new age of transportation with the autonomous vehicle revolution, it is imperative that stakeholders in the disability community, the manufacturing sector, and the government work together to create a transportation future accessible to all Americans. The current U.S. transportation infrastructure is premised on an able-bodied, human driver approach to mobility, and laws and design standards reflect this. Autonomous vehicles, which require no human monitoring, can break away from this normative approach and offer accessible transportation options for the many Americans with disabilities unable to fully access the current transportation system and the opportunities it facilitates, but not without the concerted efforts of relevant stakeholders. Therefore, in order to enable access for Americans with disabilities, the laws and standards created within the next decade must be intentionally devised to ensure that self-driving vehicles are available to as many people as possible and accommodate the widest range of abilities possible. Though it is impossible to predict what America’s autonomous transportation future will look like, with intentional, inclusive collaboration by the government, manufacturers, and people with disabilities, this future can and should be accessible to all Americans.