Blind drivers at the steering wheel
- 15 April 2013
- From the section Magazine
Innovations in automated driving have led to speculation that blind people may be able to take to the wheel. But do they want to drive - and could it become a reality?
How would you feel if a blind person pulled up next to you in a car?
This time last year, Google released a video showing a blind man driving a car. He was seen going to a local drive-through restaurant near his home in San Jose, California, and later collecting dry cleaning without any difficulty.
Steve Mahan, the driver, heads the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center and hadn't been in the driver's seat of a car since giving up his licence eight years earlier after losing 95% of his sight. On this occasion, the only action he performed was to press a start button. He couldn't control the car independently, but the video showed an intent to make driving more accessible and safe for everyone.
"I'm finding there's a lot of buzz, a lot of people in the blind community talking about driverless cars," says Mahan.
"In America, getting a driver's licence is a rite of passage. It represents being able, having the liberty to go where you want to go. Cars and car ownership are important parts of a sense of independence and personal power."
Public transport isn't very developed in the US, so being carless can leave you isolated and could contribute to problems such as unemployment. Because of this, cars can provoke a very emotional response among blind people, says Mahan. "We have had clients that will just go out and sit in the vehicles they used to drive and turn the motor on, just to be behind the wheel."
The driverless car uses a combination of GPS, laser, radar and 3D environment data that was likely to have been collected by Google's other cars, the ones whose picture-taking brought us Street View.
Mahan, 60, believes blind people will be driving in his lifetime and, after experiencing several journeys in the Google car, says he'd be confident enough to use one now if it had talking controls.
Others are much more sceptical.
"I would be surprised if in the next five years these products will reach market and we'd be legally allowed to drive," says Hugh Huddy, a campaigns officer at the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and who is himself blind.
The technology may be heading in one direction, but there are other barriers to the prospect of blind people driving - namely lawmakers and other road users.
Google has been successful in lobbying the states of Nevada, California and Florida, all of which have now passed laws to allow the testing of automated cars on their roads. It doesn't follow that people with sight loss will automatically be granted a licence, though.
Huddy is concerned about insurance and liability.
"If someone is involved in an accident, a human being could run in front of the car, or a load could fall off a lorry, and the technology probably would not save you from being in a collision," he says.
It evokes nightmare scenarios of people who can't see, sitting in a metal box oblivious to the fact that a truck may be bearing down on them, or wondering what that soggy sounding chassis-shaking bump may have been.
Google's automated cars have already travelled 300,000 miles and caused no accidents. This is said to be safer than the average driver.
Ingmar Posner, an engineer at the mobile robotics group at the University of Oxford, is part of an engineering team working on a car that will be able to take the strain off the driver with partial automation.
"Imagine one day on the M25 you're trying to go from A to B. A light will come on your dashboard and say, 'I know exactly where I am, we've driven this stretch of road loads of times. If you like, I can take over for the next 500m.'"
The futuristic idea of a fully-automated vehicle in which you can sit back and read while sipping a cappuccino on the way to work is capturing the imagination, but isn't yet close to going on sale.
Cars that can do smaller functions, such as control a car in traffic jams, keep you inside lane markings or auto-park, are already on the road or about to come to market courtesy of Toyota, Mercedes, BMW and others.
Posner believes his car could affordably reach the showrooms in 10 or 15 years, but that a fully blind person still wouldn't be able to drive it. He believes partially automated cars like his will help to make it possible for some impairments to be eliminated as barriers to driving.
"The thing I'm envisioning is that visual aids in your field of vision could highlight the lane markings for people who find night driving difficult," he says. "You also get pedestrian detection in cars these days so the edges [of disability and ability] will start to get blurred."
Lots of people will need convincing that someone with no sight should be allowed to pilot a road vehicle independently. Mahan thinks a gradual creep of automated features will lay the foundations for blind drivers to become acceptable.
"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."
He points out that, even if it does occur, cars still won't be the answer to all his way-finding challenges.
"There will still be a difficulty getting out of the car and finding your way to a front door of where you're headed, once it has parked itself," he says.