The Blind Have High Hopes for Self-Driving Cars

Advocates for the visually impaired are talking to companies and legislators
about developing vehicles they will be able to drive independently.

During a few days in August, the parking lot at the Perkins School for the
Blind morphed into a test zone where a golf-cart-like vehicle transported

and staff members, guided by a laptop. It was a prototype from 

Optimus Ride,

a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that is developing self-driving
technologies for electric vehicles.

Though the trip was short and followed a programmed course, it generated
excitement at Perkins, the country's oldest school for the blind, which

200 blind, visually impaired, and deaf-blind students on its campus and
hundreds more through programs in local schools. Advocates for the blind-at

and beyond-say driverless cars could revolutionize their lives, provided the
vehicles are designed to be accessible. As the promise of a truly autonomous

car draws closer, organizations representing the blind are taking a more
active role in shaping the vehicles and software being developed.


"Autonomous vehicles will be transformative for people who are blind," says
Dave Power, Perkins's president and CEO. "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."

Image: National Federation of the Blind president Mark Riccobono preparing
to drive the car developed by the organization's Blind Driver Challenge in


Advocates want companies to make their autonomous vehicles disability
friendly rather than produce special cars for the visually impaired, which

probably be extremely expensive. Power, a former technology executive, knows
the blind community can't assume that autonomous-vehicle makers will take

their needs into account. So he has begun inviting technology companies to
Perkins's campus to make presentations and gather feedback. "We want to help

these vendors build accessibility into their designs and think about blind
people up front," says Power.

Optimus Ride was the first company to respond to Power's invitation. During
its visits, the startup test-drove its vehicle on Perkins's 38-acre

It also held a brainstorming session to learn how driverless cars can best
serve blind people and whether they could be deployed as shuttles on large

Perkins employees say they gave the startup numerous suggestions, such as
making sure to provide adequate floor space for service dogs. They also

the need for a nonvisual interface that passengers could use to communicate
with the car. For example, a touch-screen-controlled vehicle could

blind users by integrating voice-over technology or haptic feedback.

The setup could mimic the gesture-based screen readers that blind people use
to navigate their smartphones and apps. In fact, the Perkins group

that Optimus Ride create an app for its future users. Jim Denham, Perkins's
educational technology coordinator, says he anticipates using an app to do

everything from summoning a car to instructing it to make an unscheduled
stop and wait while he unloads his belongings. The app, in turn, could give

periodic status updates about the vehicle's progress and notify them when
they've reached their destination.

Beyond vehicle and software design, the blind community wants to influence
regulations governing driverless cars. The National Federation of the Blind

the country's largest organization for blind people, has championed the idea
of cars for the blind since the early 2000s, when it organized a 

Blind Driver Challenge

 to encourage universities to create nonvisual interfaces for cars. NFB
spokesperson Chris Danielsen says the group has since asked Google to

accessibility features into its self-driving car. The NFB also plans to
attend an upcoming conference hosted by Daimler, at the invitation of the

auto giant, and to submit comments on the automated-vehicle rules that the
U.S. Department of Transportation 

released recently.


The American Council of the Blind (ACB), a national grassroots advocacy
group, has been tracking state laws to ensure that they don't prohibit blind

from using autonomous vehicles. When Nevada included restrictive language
related to blind people in its draft legislation, the organization asked

to make the wording less specific, according to ACB president Kim Charlson.
"We don't think being blind should be a reason why we can't take advantage

of these cars," she adds. "On the contrary, we think it's a reason we should
use them."

Charlson, like other advocates for the blind community, is looking forward
to a future of fully autonomous vehicles in which a blind person would not

to do any type of driving and authorities would be alerted if the car got
into trouble. Blind people say that riding in semi-autonomous cars,

sighted passengers able to serve as drivers, would not expand their current
transportation options. After all, they can already get lifts from friends

or family members, take taxis or Ubers, or use paratransit vans, which
provide shared door-to-door transportation to people with disabilities. "If
we still

h    ave to have another person in the vehicle, we're no better off than
now, regardless of how sophisticated the technology is," points out NFB's

"Autonomous vehicles are going to be the future," adds Charlson. "My
objective is to make sure people who are blind get to equally be part of
that future."





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