Government Relations Report – February 6, 2020: AVs, Airplanes, and Accessible Parking

Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash

Autonomous Vehicles

The Department of Transportation has released the fourth version of its guidance document for autonomous vehicles (AVs), outlining how more than 30 federal agencies will promote unified rules regarding the development and deployment of AVs.  The document’s release was, in part, motivated by DOT Secretary Chao’s concern that companies will take their AV research and testing outside of the US if the absence of federal legislative and/or regulatory AV frameworks continues.  Congress is also ramping up its AV-related legislative efforts: the House Committee on Energy & Commerce is holding a hearing next week to examine the promises and challenges of evolving AV technologies.

The document predictably touts the “enormous potential to promote the independence, economic opportunities, and social well-being of older Americans and persons with disabilities.”  Notably, in its most straightforward commitment to date, the DOT states that “the US Government is dedicated to ensuring that AVs are designed to offer independent mobility for daily activities as well as promote economic opportunities and overall social well-being for all Americans” and proceeds to detail the activities that certain federal agencies are engaging in to promote and expand ease of movement and travel for people with disabilities. 

Currently, any company seeking to deploy AVs must first obtain an FMVSS exemption from NHTSA.  Coincidentally, the first authorization was announced yesterday:  AV startup Nuro Inc.’s petition for exemption has been approved by NHTSA and the company is now permitted to temporarily deploy up to 5,000 low-speed electric delivery vehicles. Classified as a low-speed neighborhood vehicle, the “R2” does not have mirrors or a steering wheel, is designed to have no human occupants, and operates exclusively with an automated driving system.

Wheelchair Restraint Systems in Passenger Aircraft

The US Access Board has initiated a study on equipping passenger aircraft with wheelchair restraint systems. The undertaking, which has the potential to increase and improve access to air travel for passengers who use wheelchairs, was directed by Congress and will assess the feasibility of equipping passenger planes with in-cabin wheelchair restraint systems so that passengers can remain in their wheelchairs on flights. A committee of experts in aircraft interiors, safety engineering, accessibility, wheelchair design and crashworthiness, airline operations, and other disciplines has been organized to evaluate the design, engineering, and safety requirements for equipping aircraft with locking or tiedown mechanisms for both motorized and non-motorized wheelchairs used as seats. If such restraint systems are determined to be achievable, the committee—whose membership includes Dr. Rory Cooper, a featured panelist at the 2020 NMEDA Conference & Expo—will then assess which systems can accommodate passengers using wheelchairs through all phases of flight, from boarding to deplaning—an exciting development that has the potential to make air travel not only possible but significantly less difficult for many people with disabilities.

State Activity

On the state level, New York’s General Assembly is considering legislation to increase the number and visibility of accessible parking spaces—as well as the enforcement of unauthorized use of accessible parking spaces—in shopping centers and facilities with off street parking.  The bill also proposes to amend the state’s vehicle, traffic, and general business laws by replacing the term “handicapped” with the term “persons with disabilities.”

In other state news, the number of Vocational Rehabilitation Agency professionals attending the 2020 NMEDA Conference & Expo continues to rise: 36 individuals representing 24 states have now confirmed their attendance.  If you still haven’t registered, consider the value of meeting and networking with these important decision-makers. Once you realize this is an opportunity not to be missed, click here or contact the NMEDA office to register.