In Brief
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act promotes accessibility to the 31 million people with mobility-related disabilities.
  • Based on the Act, Uber's new autonomous fleet would be required to incorporate accessibility into their vehicles, benefiting both people with disabilities and the elderly.

Accessibility Dilemma

Uber’s current structure allows the ride-sharing company to be exempt from Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) strictures, which promote accessibility to the 31 million people with mobility-related disabilities. Arguments have been made that the company is simply a platform promoting ride-sharing and not a transportation service, therefore not making the company subject to the law.

However, with the coming of its own autonomous fleet, that legal ground is about to get a lot more shaky.

Uber is not alone in its skirting of ADA requirements, basically the entire taxi industry takes advantage of what Bryan Casey, an independent researcher and student at Stanford Law School, calls “a ‘gaping loophole’ large enough for taxi companies to drive entire fleets through.” Two words in a section of the ADA, meant to allow for companies to grow into the law, have allowed companies to completely get around it. This section exempts all cabs except “new van[s] with a seating capacity of less than 8 passengers, including the driver.” Companies stuck to the letter of the law and began to avoid “new vans” by only purchasing used ones.

Uber cannot argue that its autonomous fleet will not be “new,” so any hopes of continuing to sidestep the ADA will hinge on how the law decides to define “van.”

Photo credit: Uber

Embracing Accessibility

The motivation to use this loophole likely doesn’t come from a place of malice. Retrofitting vehicles for wheelchair accessibility can cost upwards of $10,000.

Still, Uber, and other companies looking to launch autonomous fleets, are the a unique position of being able to preemptively incorporate accessibility into their vehicles. “Embracing ADA liability is an opportunity to cement Uber’s position as a nationwide transportation titan,” says Casey. Uber would place itself well above other transportation services that would have to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to compete for that demographics’ business.

Uber taking leadership on this issue could set the tone for the future of autonomous ride-sharing. It certainly would be a move welcomed by the millions of people, both in the disabled and elderly communities, who would no longer be forced to struggle with limited public transport options.