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My uncle, Justin Sims, was shot during an attempted robbery six years ago, leaving him paralyzed from his shoulders to his feet. He was just 32 years old when his life shifted dramatically. Uncle Justin proclaimed to live the “good life” prior to this tragedy. Now, as a quadriplegic, he is dependent on other people for help with eating, bathing and, of course, transporting himself from one place to another.

He is one of 5,387,980 Americans living with a form of paralysis, making him a fragment of a large global community who share a common struggle with mobility.

During preview week of the North American International Auto Show, General Motors hosted 13 college students as part of its second annual Discover Your Drive journalism experience.

This program promotes diversity in automotive journalism and media. The students were divided into smaller groups with an assignment to create a journalistic project based on their experiences at the show.

The final projects would be presented to a committee of GM executives. My group, the “Silent Assassins,” decided to investigate the future of autonomous vehicles and the possible benefits they could bring to the disabled community.

While on the showroom floor, my team members, Oriol Brull of City College of New York, Ala’a Ibrahim of the University of Texas, Austin, and I interviewed executives from a variety of car manufacturers such as GM, Ford and Toyota. We found that many companies admitted to not thinking about the disabled community when making their vehicles. This is when we noticed the irony.

Autonomous technology is on the mind of the biggest players in the automotive industry. However, automakers are not intentionally targeting the disabled community or expressing particular interest in developing autonomous technology as a means to assist the disabled community. In the United States, for instance, 1-in-5 adults is living with a disability and 1-in-8 adults experience difficulty moving. This sparked the question: What are leading car manufacturers doing to accommodate the disabled?

One Cadillac executive we interviewed was optimistic about the progressive future of autonomous vehicles. Melody Lee, the division’s director of brand marketing, says, “Whether speaking to how we connect to the younger generation or how we address people with disabilities or special needs — it’s all related. We have to create different business models as well as different products designed around what different people need at that point.”

According to a Boston Consulting Group report, original equipment manufacturers (OEM) are developing strategic partnerships to share technology and innovation, reimagining Detroit as the capital of tech that creates the hardware and software that drives the world.

Following a series of groundbreaking regulatory changes and aggressive action uniting the public and private sectors, manufacturers in the Motor City are on a mission to define the future of mobility by defining the future of autonomous vehicles.

It is predicted, according to the consulting firm, that by 2035, approximately 25 percent of the new car market will be autonomous amounting to a $77 billion segment of the auto industry.

Diversity, meanwhile, comes in all forms, whether it be race, gender, age, or ability. After investigating what the automotive industry is doing to accommodate the unique needs of everyone, we found that a large majority of the industry is hopeful for the success of autonomous vehicles. Hopefully, in their future planning, the manufacturers will develop more products promoting innovation while accommodating all lifestyles.

When told about the things we learned at the show, my uncle says: “That’s probably the best thing that can happen to a disabled, or handicapped person, is own a self-driving car.”

About the writer

Dominique Sims, a senior at Clark Atlanta University, majoring in mass media arts, was one of 13 students who attended the North American International Auto Show as a fellow of the Discovery Your Drive initiative sponsored by General Motors.

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