According to the visually impaired, autonomous cars will add a new dimension of independence to their daily lives.

Advocates for the blind and visually impaired are taking an increasingly active role in the design of self-driving vehicles and their software, writes Elizabeth Woyke for MIT’s Technology Review. Dave Power, president and CEO of Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, said autonomous vehicles will be “transformative” for visually impaired people. Perkins is the oldest school for the blind in the United States.

Power said:

For the first time, they will be able to get to school, work, and community activities independently, regardless of distance. There is tremendous enthusiasm about it, both here and nationally, among the blind.

Visually impaired people hope to see all autonomous vehicles contain features they will benefit from, rather than special vehicles adapted for the blind. Because of this, Power is welcoming technology companies that would like to make presentations on the school’s campus, and hear what visually impaired students and faculty have to say.

Autonomous Campus Shuttles

The first company to visit Perkins was Optimus Ride, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company that test-drove its vehicles on the 38-acre campus. Optimus also held a brainstorming session on the idea of using self-driving shuttles at college campuses. During the sessions, Perkins workers suggested that vehicles have adequate space to accommodate guide dogs. They also suggested touch-screen controlled vehicles with voice-over or haptic controls similar to gesture-based screen readers that blind people use with their smartphones and apps.

The Perkins group would like to see Optimus Ride create an app that blind people can use with the vehicles in the future. Such apps might call a car, tell it to make an unplanned stop along the route, and wait while a passenger unloads packages. Such an app should be able to give passengers ongoing updates about where the vehicle is, and let them know when they have arrived at their destination.

Blind Driver Challenge

Chris Danielson, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), is another person who would like to see accessibility features built into the self-driving vehicles, and has asked Google to do so.

NFB is not stopping there; it looks forward to submitting comments on U.S. Department of Transportation’s autonomous vehicle rules, and was invited by Daimler to attend a conference on self-driving vehicles.

In 2004, the NFB launched its Blind Driver Challenge, an initiative of the federation’s Jernigan Institute to develop non-visual technology that can convey real-time information about the environment, making it possible for a blind person to independently and safely drive a car. The federation held a series of meetings with influential engineers, including those involved in university robotics projects. In 2008 and 2009, the NFB began a project with Virginia Tech University to create the first vehicle that a blind person can drive.

Issues for State Legislatures

In other activism on behalf of blind people, the American Council of the Blind has been monitoring state laws to make sure they will not be preventing blind people from using self-driving vehicles.

According to the NFB, in 2013, there were 7,327,800 blind adults in the U.S., including 106,600 in Colorado. One of them, Steve Mahan, did a test drive of a Google autonomous car in 2012.

Autonomous vehicles are just around the corner. To explore other benefits of self-driving cars, including autonomy for the disabled, see 10 Advantages of Self-Driving Cars.

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