Thu | Aug 24, 2017

The blind community has high hopes for self-driving cars

Published:Sunday | February 19, 2017 | 2:00 AM

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

MIT Technology

During a few days last August, the parking lot at Perkins School for the Blind, in Watertown, Massachusetts, morphed into a test zone where a golf-cart-like vehicle transported students and staff members, guided by a laptop. It was a prototype from Optimus Ride, a startup in nearby Cambridge 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 serves 200 blind, visually impaired, and deaf-blind students on its campus and hundreds more through programs in local schools.

Advocates for the blindat Perkins and beyondsay driverless cars could revolutionize their lives, provided the vehicles are designed to be accessible. As the promise of a truly autonomous car draws closer, organisations representing people who are blind are taking a more active role in shaping the vehicles and software being developed. They want companies to make their autonomous vehicles disability friendly rather than producing special cars for the visually impaired, which would probably be extremely expensive.

Dave Power, Perkins's president and CEO, knows the blind community can't assume that autonomous-vehicle makers will take their needs into account, so he invited technology companies to campus to make presentations and gather feedback. "We want to help these vendors build accessibility into their designs and think about people who are blind up front," says Power.

 

TOUCH-SCREEN CONTROLLED

 

Optimus Ride was the first company to respond to his invitation. During its visits, the startup test-drove its vehicle on Perkins's 38-acre property. 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 campuses. Perkins employees say they gave the startup numerous suggestions, such as making sure to provide adequate floor space for service dogs. They also emphasized the need for a nonvisual interface that passengers could use to communicate with the car. For example, a touch-screen-controlled vehicle could accommodate blind users by integrating voice technology or haptic feedback. The setup could mimic the gesture-based screen readers that people with impaired vision use to navigate their smartphones and apps.

Beyond vehicle and software design, the blind community wants to influence regulations governing driverless cars. The American Council of the Blind (ACB), an advocacy group, has been tracking state laws to ensure that they don't prohibit blind people from using autonomous vehicles. When early-adopter states, such as Nevada, were considering legislation on self-driving cars, blind advocacy groups asked lawmakers to keep 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."