Self-driving cars are in the news a lot lately – and for a reason. A self-driving car, also called an autonomous car, is a car which can navigate and drive without any input from a human. Everyone wants one (although it is not yet possible to buy one), automakers and tech companies are racing to get them on the roads and regulators are…worrying.

It seems, though, inevitable that self-driving cars will become a feature on the roads. In some places, they already are. Waymo, the company Alphabet formed to take over Google’s self-driving car development program, is about to release a ride-hailing service with driverless cars in Arizona, with an eye to San Francisco.

And in Las Vegas, a company called Aptiv has partnered with Lyft. In the trucking industry, automation is being eyed to solve a US-wide shortage of drivers. Most of the work on self-driving cars is being done in the US, but in the UK the law is changing to allow for completely autonomous cars by 2021. This may push some of the R&D and testing to the UK.

So, what about people who can’t drive? Right now, in most places, it isn’t legal for a self-driving car to be on the roads without a qualified driver who can take over if the robot malfunctions. That will change, though. In fact, some years ago, Google showed the potential of the technology by letting a blind man take one of their cars for a spin – and the video of him getting out of the driver’s side and then pulling out his white cane went viral.

Assuming the regulatory and insurance issues are resolved, self-driving cars may be the solution disabled people are waiting for. This, of course, includes seniors – in fact, a luxury retirement community in Florida has already started operating self-driving taxis for its elderly residents (although they still carry safety drivers, just in case).

Seniors may be the first to adopt self-driving cars, allowing them to keep their independence.

For younger disabled people, especially in rural areas, a self-driving car may make the difference between being able to work and contribute and being trapped at home. True, telecommuting can also be an answer, but not all jobs can be done remotely. This will also help everyone – possibly giving the British economy a boost of as much as 8 billion a year.

These cars can be controlled by voice and will integrate with GPS. Eventually, autonomous cars can be programmed to stop near a curb cut. For some disabled people having another person may still be needed (for example, some wheelchair users may still need a companion to move the wheelchair or to return a powered scooter to its parking spot – but then, in the future, maybe the scooter will park itself too).

Self-driving cars may also be helpful for people with mental health issues – for example, some people with anxiety disorders or depression may have days when driving is simply too much for them.

This might, in turn, help people “get out of the house” to work or for leisure, which can help management of or recovery from mental health disorders. For example, a depressed person who benefits from exercise but does not have the energy to drive to a gym may be better able to sustain an exercise program and thus fight their depression.

In other words – yes, self-driving cars will help disabled people and seniors may well be the early adopters of the technology, as they can use it to avoid the problems that come with having to give up their drivers’ license.

Although true self-driving cars are still some years in the future, we can already see how the technology will improve the quality of life of many people with disabilities – including the less obvious ones.

Also read: UK driving hard to promote driverless cars


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