Do you know who the first widespread electric vehicle (EV) users were? Not Elon Musk. It was not wealthy, nor was it environmentally conscious.
It was disabled people.
The electric wheelchair first debuted in the 1950s to assist veterans of WWII. Today, 1.7 million Americans use them as their primary electric conveyance. Disabled folks are the largest minority group in the U.S. This part of our population needs to be included in the EV revolution, and it needs to happen now, at the beginning of new standards and guidance for the wide-scale deployment of EV infrastructure and vehicles.
We cannot accurately claim to already have equity for disabled people in our nation’s contemporary EV movement. Charger accessibility, vehicle ownership costs and electric vehicle design all pose barriers for disabled people.
This isn’t a new story. Adapting transportation and infrastructure to be inclusive usually happens after the fact. Retrofitting sidewalk ramps, laws requiring handicap access to buildings and parking lots and protection from discrimination at work or school all came centuries after they were needed. Even with existing requirements applied to EV charging stations from the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, we still have inequality. We need to discuss, legislate and implement access from the beginning. Instead of just counting and adding more EV charging stations, let’s test those stations for their accessibility to all users.
As the local, state and federal levels of government have started taking steps to install a wave of public EV chargers, now is the time to consider how to make sure future chargers are accessible to all.
In July 2022, the U.S. Access Board released an official guiding document on the subject; Design Recommendations for Accessible Electric Vehicle Charging Stations.
The authors identify two aspects of accessibility when it comes to EV chargers: accessible mobility features; “…physical access for people who use mobility devices, such as wheelchairs, scooters, walkers and canes,” and accessible communication features; “…operable parts…[enabling] EV chargers to be used by people who are deaf or hard of hearing, little people, and other people with disabilities…”
So what features are we actually talking about relating mobility access to public EV chargers? Charging space and access aisle size dictate whether someone using a mobility device can physically access the charger and port as needed. The location of spots and aisles should not be located too close to a curb or unlevel area. All operable components of the charging station need to be at certain heights to ensure they are at a reachable range for wheelchair users and others. Hand dexterity limitations of some folks should be considered when designing connectors and choosing the weight of cables.
Accessible communication features bring their own set of considerations. An EV charger’s User Interface is where a driver interacts with the software, such as the display screen, input controls and keys/cards.
See Figure 1 for a partial list of considerations that need to be made when crafting an accessible user interface. Contactless payment systems should be available in addition to keeping the charging company’s website and mobile apps up to standard with digital accessibility legislation.
We can’t just rely on the government to implement the accommodations in question. Private companies and businesses should do their part to serve as wide and diverse a clientele as possible.
Some accessibility adaptations are already being developed by private manufacturers. Just a few months ago, Ford Motor Company announced the development of a robotic EV charger; which will plug itself in once the driver has parked and activated an application on their phone, making the process of charging easier for disabled users.
“The regular charging cable is integrated into a robot arm that finds the charging point via machine vision (there’s a camera attached to the arm) and then adjusts itself to plug in. The driver can then remain in the car or get out and do whatever they want to do, while the robot does its job.”
Even this moment of progress is underlined with inaccessibility, though, as its debut video from Ford shows the robot was installed in a location that would be inaccessible for some people (due to a raised curb, uneven ground, etc.) It is scenarios like these that demonstrate the need for disabled people to be involved throughout the entire process of EV infrastructure design, installation and upkeep.
Why should you care about this if you are not disabled? For those who might have a temporarily debilitating injury or illness that impacts mobility for a short amount of time, the aforementioned accommodations will help you, too. If you need to charge up during bad weather, an automatic robot charger would permit any user, disabled or not, to safely remain in their vehicle. Prioritizing accessible electric car technology will actually benefit everyone.
The question we need to ask is, “Why are disabled people the first to utilize EVs, but among the last to be considered for inclusion?”
As a disabled car user who works for a non-profit electric vehicle initiative, I have a unique position in this discourse. I’ve read first-person accounts from disabled EV drivers describing their experiences with inaccessible public charging infrastructure. I’ve personally witnessed a lack of advocacy and prioritization for disabled people in our industry. This exclusion doesn’t just happen to disabled people in the EV world but also to people with other marginalized identities. All of us must be involved in the mission to elevate these groups and their voices which have been historically snubbed and overlooked. We can start a new path by deferring to the experts; those who have been experiencing exclusion know the best way to include themselves.