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Riding Driverless on the Highway to Independence?

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No Limits to the Possibilities, but Accessibility Remains Key Concern

illustration of cars on the highway, emitting connection signals
  • The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection voted unanimously this week to advance autonomous vehicle legislation.
  • But the House bill dropped a provision that sought to promote access to self-driving cars for people with disabilities.
  • Mark Richert, AFB Director of Public Policy, expressed concern. “We hope the language the American Foundation for the Blind has drafted with our partners regarding accessibility standards for autonomous vehicles will be included in the final bill.”

One fine day last December, Texas-resident Steven Mahan took a car ride through Austin city traffic. The remarkable thing wasn’t that the vehicle that carried him was driverless, with no steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. After all, Google engineers have been developing the technology for over a decade while rivals Tesla, Lyra, and Uber have been conducting their own road experiments.

Indeed, driverless cars are approved for testing on public thoroughfares in 10 U.S. cities, from San Francisco to the nation’s capital.

No, what made this car jaunt historic was that passenger Mahan is legally blind—the first person with a visual impairment to participate in such a trial as an unaccompanied passenger.

Mahan’s verdict: “It is like driving with a very good driver.”

This latest milestone is further evidence that the driverless cars are far from a fanciful pipe dream.

The technology has all but arrived, and the auto industry’s commitment to an autonomous future is firm. Auto giants like General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler all have decades and dollars invested in the design and development of automated vehicles. Ford Motor Company announced a $1 billion investment in a Pittsburgh robotics start-up, with the intention of putting a truly driverless car on the road by 2021. Ford’s competitors also have announced tentative street dates, and there’s little reason to doubt them. The same autopilot technology has already found its way into conventional automobiles as a standard feature.

Further, the federal government has given the industry its green light. The Obama administration in its final weeks issued safety guidelines for manufacturers, officially endorsing the fast-evolving technology. To date, the Trump administration has not signaled any shifts in policy.

There seems no doubt. Automation is coming. The prospect is exciting for many, but particularly for those in the disability community. Driving is one of the last barriers for people who are visually impaired—a long-insurmountable barrier to genuine independence. Once that hurdle falls, the potential impact will be profound.

The Ruderman Family Foundation, in a white paper released last February, concluded that “mitigating transportation related obstacles for individuals with disabilities would enable new employment opportunities for approximately 2 million individuals with disabilities, and save $19 billion annually in health care expenditures from missed medical appointments.” The paper further noted that access to automated vehicles would result in “$1.3 trillion in savings from productivity gains, fuel costs, accident prevention, among other sources.”

Exciting, but the vision loss community is far from ready to crack the champagne just yet.

Test drives with people who are blind riding solo are exciting and raise hopes—but needless roadblocks still stand in the way of people with vision loss achieving full and equal access to America’s roads.

Driverless cars under development are not necessarily being designed with drivers with visual impairments in mind. “Think about all the functions the typical automobile performs,” said Mark Richert. “To be truly accessible, the driver needs to be able to start the engine, input the destination, and make choices about the desired route as driving traffic conditions change. True accessibility for people with vision loss means being able to utilize automation as a tool, not merely surrender control to it.”

AFB has been the leading force in the development and application of accessible technology for nearly 100 years. Mark Richert noted that this experience and expertise are critical to the timely availability of driverless cars for consumers.

Of course, the general public also is vested in the safety of driverless technology and those who operate them, and here, perception is just as crucial to overcoming anxieties as reality.

Last summer, an auto crash involving autopilot technology claimed the life of a Florida driver, raising concerns about the safety of autonomous technology on the road and whether the push to get driverless cars on the road has been too aggressive.

Advocates argue that safety is one of the strongest reasons to move forward.

RAND Corporation scientist Nidhi Kalra, an author of the report "Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers," addressed the issue in a recent New York Times editorial, noting that an estimated 30,000 Americans die in automobile accidents each year; an additional 2 million are injured. In most instances, the error is human, not mechanical.

“Driverless cars may never be perfect, but they won't make the kind of routine miscalculations and mistakes that human drivers make all the time,” Kalra said. “They won’t be drunk, tired, or distracted.”

Mahan, for one, thinks the public will come to accept drivers with disabilities as confidence in the technology grows. As he told the BBC: “What will happen is they will not get comfortable with blind people driving, they will get comfortable with the capabilities of self-driving cars that sighted people will be using."

But assuming all safety and technical problems are overcome, there is still the question of licensing drivers who, at present, are forbidden by law from getting behind the wheel. What will be the criteria for issuing driver’s licenses in a “driverless” future? States currently include a vision test as part of their licensing procedures. Clearly, the time has come to rethink the legal definition of a licensed driver.

“We recognize this is new ground,” said Kirk Adams, president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind. “These innovations have the potential to create a world of no limits for employees who are blind, or losing their vision, who currently face major transportation hurdles in many markets. We need to be having conversations about the legal and practical implications of a driverless future at the federal and state levels and they need to be broadly inclusive—car manufacturers and tech companies, regulators and local government, and most certainly members of the vision loss community.”

“People with disabilities have much to gain and even more to contribute to the safe, successful, and inevitable adoption of this emerging technology. Consequently, our voices must be part of every discussion—both developmental and at the policy level—as the era of automation approaches,” said Richert, adding that AFB is eager to continue working side-by-side with legislators, auto companies, and driverless car developers to perfect the technology standards that put vehicles on the road.

“If you want to show how well your driverless cars work by putting people who are blind behind the wheel, that’s great!” said Richert. “But then you better put us in the driver’s seat when it comes to developing national policy around accessible controls.”

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