As the auto industry retools to become EV-centric, it has the chance to improve the driving experience for the over six million Canadians living with disabilities — but most OEMs don’t have an accessibility plan in place
For able-bodied drivers, the experience of buying a combustion-engine vehicle is well-catered to. Dealerships team with sales associates waiting to bend the ear of a prospective buyer; shopping from home is easy with webpages so sophisticated you can customize and purchase your vehicle from your desk; and, with the exception of different cosmetic finishes, buyers are always secure in the knowledge that each vehicle, irrespective of brand, model and year, is standardized to comfortably fit and work for “the average” driver.
But the pivot to electric vehicles is giving unique insight into what challenges non-“average” drivers face. Suddenly sales associates may not be so knowledgeable about the products on the floor; the mouses of at-home buyers hover uncertainly over unfamiliar options like battery size or home chargers, and there is pervasive insecurity about range, cabin and cargo size.
Welcome to the long-standing experience of the six million Canadians dealing with some form of disability and struggling to access equitable methods of transport that they can feel confident will meet their needs.
“The information and lack of understanding around disabilities is something that auto manufacturers around the world need to do a better job of in terms of building and designing a specific vehicle for some of the disabilities,” says Joel Dembe,a former Paralympian and a wheelchair user, in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.
“You often get outsourced,” says Dembe of trying to get retrofits for accessible-needs vehicles today. “But why can’t Chevrolet or Ford or Tesla build the design themselves?”
Dembe has and continues to struggle finding suitable vehicles to meet his mobility needs and, as a result, is a vocal advocate of accessible design in the auto world at an early production stage.
Now, he and other advocates for disabled drivers see the advent of electric, autonomous vehicles — which is bringing new companies into the market and compelling legacy manufacturers to retool entire operations — as a prime opportunity to push for change.
Dembe suggests starting by streamlining the buying experience.
“How most [disabled] people find their vehicle is through their occupational therapist. Their occupational therapist often works with vehicle manufacturers and vehicle adaptive businesses…[and] helps them find the right vehicle for their disability,” says Dembe.
Retrofits range in cost from a few hundred dollar for hand paddles to several thousands of dollars for hydraulic chair lifts. All of which the customer needs to navigate installing with minimal industry support and relying wholly on third parties.
“I, unfortunately, see so many cases where families simply cannot afford to drive because of their disability and because of the cost associated with it,” says Dembe.
Electric Autonomy Canada reached out to the “Big Three” automakers — Ford, Stellantis and General Motors — in North America along with Hyundai and Tesla to understand their policies around accessibility. With the exception of one automaker, General Motors, there was no response to the request, no response in time for publication, or, the automaker disclosed the company has no policies in place for accessible driving features or education.
GM’s accessibility initiatives
In late 2021, General Motors launched a new program known as “Zero Barriers” through its Accessibility Center of Excellence. The aim of the initiative is to capture and represent more consumer voices from the widest spectrum of experiences possible in GM’s product development. Championing the concerns and feedback from disabled drivers is top in the Center’s goals.
“This is an industry challenge, not a General Motors challenge. EV architectures are going to be something that we need to learn about and understand and really think about in the lens of accessibility,” says Carrie Morton, chief engineer of accessibility and head of the Accessibility Center at GM.
“When you think about our products and accessibility, we need to bring those innovations and discussions into the product planning much earlier. This is a completely blank slate when we’re going forward and we’re thinking about that ultimate goal of an automated and electric vehicle that can really serve every purpose.”
Dembe says a universal vehicle is a lofty goal for any OEM, given the varied nature of disabilities, but he believes there are many ways that all automakers can make strides in inclusivity — from rethinking the design of the vehicle itself to ensuring its safety for wheelchair-using drivers and providing ongoing dealership education.
“It’s serious. This lack of information, I truly believe, is the biggest inhibitor,” says Dembe. “I just wish that dealers in Canada had more requirements around helping the person with a disability.”
While most of Morton’s Accessibility Center work is affecting GM’s American operations, she is optimistic that there is enough of a sea change that inclusivity will permeate GM’s brand in all jurisdictions.
“This is becoming raised more and more in the consciousness of society that we’re leaving people with disability behind,” says Morton. “There’s a saying in the disability community, ‘Nothing about us, without us.’ I think when we see gaps and designs that missed the mark, it’s because we were innovating without the community and we were innovating ‘for’ not ‘with,’ so that’s really foundational that as we work on new innovations, that we really change that mindset.”
The role of autonomous, electric vehicles
In 2022, the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association launched a competition among post-secondary schools to design a fully accessible electric autonomous vehicle.
The winning design, named Project Atlas, was created by a four-person team at Humber College in Ontario.
The project (which is only for the design, not production of the vehicle) was set in the year 2027, when electric vehicles run on 800-volt platforms and autonomy has reached Level 4, which means the vehicle can operate in self-driving mode in a geo-fenced area.
Accordingly, Project Atlas is a futuristic-looking, largely glass-encased vehicle with moveable, rollaway seats to make room for wheelchairs and a smart driving system (think Siri, but for the highway) to help visually-impaired or low-hearing drivers. It is a vehicle that would be accessible for a much larger segment of the population than vehicles today.
It is also a project that captured Morton’s attention.
“It’s so exciting for us as General Motors to see these activities and these competitions. It signals to us that there is a building of a pipeline of talent…in the auto space,” she says.
And it appears the feeling is mutual: “We are watching what GM is doing very closely,” says Flavio Volpe in an email to Electric Autonomy. “Our interest in this space is the incubation of ideas that leading carmakers may deploy in future production.”
For Dembe, the fact that conversations anchored and motivated by improving accessibility are being had is a welcome change. But it still remains an enormous challenge to imagine a vehicle could be built to serve all needs, though harnessing the opportunities of electric and autonomous functions do get the industry closer.
“I think artificial intelligence and the ability for self-driving vehicles opens the door more so because it helps everyone. If we focus on that technology, you do solve for a lot more disabilities than looking at the aesthetic and design of the vehicle itself,” says Dembe.
“I wish I could give a hard and fast solution. But what I would say is when we continue to innovate and innovate for everyone, it is helping people with disabilities.”