Should the Blind Be Able to ‘Drive’ Automated Vehicles?

It's probably inevitable: the point at which someone legally forbidden today from manually operating a motor vehicle on public roadways can pop into an automobile and ease on down the road.

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KAREN BLEIER / AFP / Getty Images

The Google self-driving car maneuvers through the streets of Washington, DC May 14, 2012.

It’s probably inevitable: the point at which someone legally forbidden today from manually operating a motor vehicle on public roadways — someone legally blind, that is, whether fully or partially unsighted — can pop into an automobile and ease on down the road, be it swinging by a food joint to grab lunch or winding for hours along a vertiginous highway, say the Rocky Mountain toll road on the way up to Pikes Peak. Whether it’s in one of Google’s much-hyped automated vehicles or someone else’s take on the tech hardly matters.

But as the BBC notes, it won’t be as simple as pronouncing self-driving cars roadworthy and handing over the keys to anyone with the inclination. The idea of loosing self-driving cars on U.S. roadways piloted by sighted drivers can seem controversial enough. What if the autonomous driving system malfunctions somehow? What if it completely fails? The engine light in my non-autonomous 2011 VW Jetta wagon occasionally pops on erroneously and the tire pressure gauge requires recalibrating any time I drop the car off for service, refusing to recognize the topped up PSI levels as valid. Lemons aside, we’ve probably all at one time or another driven a vehicle prone to inexplicable fits (if not outright tantrums). Imagine adding something as sophisticated as full vehicular automation to the equation.

And yet the arguments in favor of self-driving cars are many: computer-sorted traffic could yield higher maximum speeds and optimized drive times (sayonara “stop and go,” hello increased fuel efficiency!), the option to drive whether you’ve had too much to drink or not and driverless valet park anywhere you go (as well as make better use of parking space — no more sloppy two-for-one parking jobs). Imagine your vehicle driving itself off to a maintenance facility without your assistance, returning home on its own, or the option to be as distracted as you like while your vehicle’s escorting you around, from texting to watching a video to catching up on your notes for a morning work meeting.

In theory, an exhaustively thorough autonomous driving system would result in fewer traffic accidents, with computers responding to navigational information far more reliably (and accurately) than a human could. Even a hybrid scenario in which both autonomous and human-driven vehicles shared the road might be safer, with self-driven vehicles capable of reacting more quickly (and optimally) to life-threatening situations, say responding to a vehicle braking hard ahead, racing over a sudden swatch of black ice or avoiding an oncoming vehicle along a divided highway that suddenly rockets across the median toward you. Think of all the traffic incidents (and deaths) caused by drivers ignoring stoplights or stop signs, clipping or directly slamming into vehicles that have the right of way. Spatially “aware” autonomous vehicles might be capable of sensing a vehicle approaching at clearly unsafe velocities before proceeding through an intersection. It’s not that autonomous vehicles would be guaranteed accident-free, but the idea’s that they’d be much less likely to have accidents, better able to react to life-threatening situations than more error-prone humans.

Assuming that’s all technically plausible in the near term, think of how impactful autonomous vehicles might be on those for whom operation of a motorized vehicle is legally verboten. According to the National Federation of the Blind, over 25 million adults in the U.S. aged 18 or older qualify as blind (defined by the United States Bureau of the Census as “significant vision loss” and “trouble seeing, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses”). That’s roughly one-twelfth of the population. Think of the economic ramifications alone if we could give this group the same transit flexibility sighted drivers currently enjoy.

I have a legally blind friend who lives in Minneapolis. His powers of recall are astonishing. Toss out a pair of cross streets and he’ll tell you precisely how many blocks to your next turn or destination. He’s like a human GPS — like one of those people that can play chess in their heads. He keeps track of each street and location like positions on a checkerboard. And yet he’s been dependent all his life on public transportation, essentially forced to live in a city with an elaborate public transportation system, his employment options limited to accessible destinations (and even then, forced to make lengthy commutes — for many a choice, but for him the only option). Imagine a world in which he could hop in his own vehicle and go anywhere, anytime.

Google pitched this very idea in a video last year, showing Santa Clara Valley Blind Center honcho Steve Mahan “driving” an autonomous car to grab a bite to eat and later picking up some dry cleaning. “Look ma, no hands!” says Mahan as the car uses radar, lasers and GPS data to stop at or glide through intersections. As the BBC notes, Google’s self-driving cars have logged about 300,000 accident-free miles to date, making them safer than the average driver, statistically.

Assuming a company like Google can clear the remaining technical thresholds, are we prepared to accord those with visual challenges the legal right to travel anywhere in an autonomous vehicle? Mahan certainly thinks so: “What will happen is [that people] 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.”