The advent of driverless cars heralds an exciting era of increased opportunities for individuals, businesses and public sector bodies alike. But the impact is potentially very significant for those people for whom current transport options are difficult to access, because of particular needs or impairments.
What will the impact be on public sector bodies?
The single equality duty, as consolidated by the Equality Act 2010, specifically requires public bodies to be mindful of eliminating discrimination, advancing equality of opportunity and fostering good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not. Protected characteristics include age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race (including colour, nationality and ethnic origins), religion/belief, sex and sexual orientation. When taking decisions, public bodies must consciously consider these factors, including the need to minimise disadvantages caused by an individual or group’s protected characteristic, encouraging participation in public life and meeting their specific needs.
Fully automated driverless cars may prove a useful tool in improving equality for some protected groups. In terms of disability and age in particular transporting individuals door to door may open up opportunities to improve access to community groups and medical care, as well more routine tasks like shopping. Independent living may become more readily accessible for some groups. Similarly, areas with fewer drivers could benefit from driverless initiatives, creating transport links that may not have been prioritised in the past. More vehicles may be able to operate on quieter or rural routes if the level of investment in human terms is reduced.
Ambulance services and care providers could be made more efficient and effective, with routine services being provided by fully automated vehicles. This could, after a period of investment, save finances for already-stretched public bodies, which could be re-invested elsewhere.
What will the impact be on businesses?
Businesses are also subject to the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 in terms of access to services. Would car hire companies be required to provide driverless vehicles in order to ensure that they offer equality of access to disabled customers, for example?
Crucially, autonomous vehicles could get non-drivers, and disabled people in particular, back into the workplace. People who are physically able to work but who are unable to travel to work would be able to take up employment.
In some specific cases, employers could be obligated under the Equality Act 2010 to provide a driverless car as a reasonable adjustment to an employee’s working conditions – it could be viewed as an “auxiliary aid” that would enable a user to do their job.
Increased transport links may also improve the ability for all non-drivers to take up work in a wider geographical area and even to increase the number of shifts that employers operate – larger employers with a fleet of driverless vehicles could opt to put on a shuttle system to bring employees to and from work at unsociable hours, to improve attendance and to ensure their safety.
The ability to travel independently in – autonomous vehicles could enable some to experience, perhaps for the first time, the freedom that most of society takes for granted, but may impose upon public sector bodies and businesses additional responsibilities in the provision of their services, which may be offset by significant efficiency gains.