Autism and Autonomous Vehicles

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MTI research identifies how autonomous vehicles can address driving challenges for individuals with developmental disabilities
April 21, 2020
San José, CA

Over the next decade almost three-quarters of a million people with autism will reach driving age in a highly automated transportation environment. In The Potential for Autonomous Vehicle Technology to Address Barriers to Driving for Individuals with Autism, Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) researchers examined the magnitude of challenges to driving and accessing essential opportunities for adults with autism, and the potential of automated vehicles to address those challenges.

The study first identifies the potential driving challenges for those with autism. Then, it identifies specific features of automated vehicle technology that address those challenges by using the 0-5 scale (no vehicle automation to fully automated vehicles) from the Society for Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) levels of automation.

The findings revealed that many of the diagnostic factors associated with autism may contribute to driving difficulties, including challenges in executive function, social-cognitive and motor skills, sensory perception, and integration of sensory-motor skills.

“Social cognitive skills include the ability to identify driving hazards that are, by nature, social: for example, predicting the actions of other drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Not to mention using non-verbal gestures and signals to communicate,” explained report author and MTI Research Associate Dr. Caroline Rodier.

Programs that provide funding for persons with autism to take individualized transit training courses, use subsidized or free transit passes, and provide access to paratransit do exist. However, most U.S. transit systems fail to meet the basic travel needs of the average American, much less for those with autism. Dr. Rodier offers the following policy recommendations:

  • Employ SAE level 4 (one step below full automation) to expand transit access in lower-density environments affordably;
  • Subsidize ride-hailing services through public funding when transit is not feasible;
  • Implement driving evaluations on autistic adolescents through existing developmental therapy modules by applying them to autonomous vehicle technology testing;
  • Allow public funding for people with autism to purchase vehicles with recommended technologies if automation is found to be significantly beneficial.

Autonomous technology has already proven to benefit those with physical disabilities. With continued and coordinated research, those with developmental disabilities could also potentially overcome transit challenges.


At the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University (SJSU) our mission is to increase mobility for all by improving the safety, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience of our nation's transportation system. Through research, education, workforce development and technology transfer, we help create a connected world. MTI was founded in 1991 and is funded through the US Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, the California Department of Transportation, and public and private grants. MTI is affiliated with SJSU’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.


Dr. Caroline Rodier is a researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.



Irma Garcia, MTI Communications & Workforce Development Coordinator



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