Opinion: Disability must be considered in auto development

Henry Claypool
Construction continues on the Ford display at Cobo center.

Saturday marks the opening of the 2019 NAIAS Detroit Auto Show, led by its presentation series on the future of the automobile, Automobili-D. Conference attendees can expect panels on innovations such as vehicle to infrastructure connectivity, urban mobility, smart cities, building a mobility workforce, ride sharing, cybersecurity and autonomous technologies.

The auto industry has always led by driving innovation -- Detroit is the center of that innovation, and this week more than ever the world is looking to Detroit for leadership.

As a member of the disability community, a wheelchair user, and the owner of a modified, wheelchair-accessible van, I am also looking to Detroit for leadership as they develop the vehicles of the future.

Vehicle design is commonly seen as the primary impediment to accessible transportation, including by the Department of Transportation in their Autonomous Vehicles 3.0 Guidance released October 2018. But, to date, no major automotive manufacturer has ever mass-marketed a vehicle that’s accessible to people who use wheelchairs. To truly seize the future, this mistake must be swiftly corrected.

Addressing the needs of people with mobility disabilities is key to unlocking one of the most underserved markets for transportation. With every indicator suggesting that an aging baby boomer population will our ranks, Americans with mobility challenges present an enormous opportunity to fortify the future of the automotive industry for future decades.

Market analysts in both the private sector and government agencies project that technology will disrupt and revolutionize the traditional auto industry, and that mobility for an increasing senior population and disability community will play a huge role in shaping the winners and losers in the automotive space for decades to come. As an American, I sincerely hope that U.S. companies are not just part of that race -- but leaders of the pack.

I know that the incredibly talented designers and engineers working for automakers in Detroit are ready for this challenge. Some of the most creative minds in the world have found a home in the American automotive industry, and as the auto show begins this week, their work will be on full display.

I am excited to see the promising visions for the future of mobility that will be showcased at this year’s NAIAS. I, and many other members of the disability community, are equally excited to work with visionary partners in the auto industry to address this challenge head-on, and to build a better, more inclusive future together.

Henry Claypool is a technology policy consultant at the American Association of People with Disabilities.