Self-driving cars may give the blind improved ability to travel


It seems like an unbelievable prospect that the blind could sit in the driver’s seat of a car. Nevertheless, driverless technology could make it a reality.

In a recent Bloomberg News article,  Anil Lewis, executive director of the Blind Jernigan Institute, which works to develop technologies and services that help the blind said, “If it’s designed correctly, if the vehicles are accessible, it’s going to create an improved ability to travel that doesn’t currently exist.”

There are an estimated 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States. They and others with disabilities are lobbying Congress, along with automakers and technology companies, to help advance the launch of self-driving vehicles.

Advocacy groups for the blind and disabled have let their needs be known. They want accessibility incorporated into driverless car designs and they want states not to pass any legislation that would forbid the blind from being allowed to drive a proven-safe self-driving vehicle.

Even though a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently voted unanimously to advance legislation for this new technology, the blind are facing the long-understood and obvious fact that one needs to see in order to drive. Even though a proven-safe driverless car is a long way down the road, there are roadblocks already surfacing.

The Arkansas Democrat recently published an article on the subject quoting Alex Epstein, senior director of digital strategy at the National Safety Council, who said this new technology has a very long way to go before driverless cars won’t need a steering wheel or brake and before a human driver can be removed from the equation.

Epstein said, “In theory, the concept is a wonderful idea. The question is how does the auto industry and the tech industry get to that place?”

Despite teaming up with numerous advocates of those with disabilities, the elderly, carmakers and others, certain states, like Florida, Michigan and New York, already have laws requiring operators of automated vehicles to take a vision test for the required driver’s license. It is believed that other states will likely follow their lead. Getting policymakers to understand that specifically modified automated cars would be safe for the blind to drive is a hard sell.

A study funded by the energy group, Securing America’s Future Energy and the Ruderman Family Foundation found that “…improved access to transportation from fully autonomous vehicles would save $19 billion in health care costs from missed doctor’s appointments and help improve job prospects for 2 million disabled people.”

The recent House bill, if passed, would leave individual states in charge of their vehicle registration, insurance and licensing; however, only the federal government could set safety standards for autonomous vehicles. Making it even harder for the disabled is a provision that was dropped from an earlier draft of the bill, which would have promoted access to autonomous vehicles for them.

Experts strongly believe that safe, autonomous vehicles will come into being and with it the need for states to address policy challenges to enable the blind and other disabled persons to avail themselves of the technology.

According to David Strickland, counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, “We’re going to be moving from a model where people are drivers to a model where people are going to be passengers. You’re going to end up segregating them from the use of that technology unless you amend the licensure laws.”

What is the reality going to be? Can a blind driver safely travel in a self-driving vehicle? Here’s one bit of news that may answer that question. In 2015, Steve Mahan, from the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, traveled around Austin, Texas, by himself in a Google car without a steering wheel or floor pedals.

Mankind use to think the earth was flat, that we’d never make it to the moon. Guess what happened? Science, technology and education made the unheard of into new realities.

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Attribution: By Michael Shick (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sources: Bloomberg News and the Arkansas Democrat Gazette

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