During a few days in August, the parking lot at Perkins School for the Blind 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 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 serves 200 blind, visually impaired, and deaf-blind students on its campus and hundreds more through programs in local schools. Advocates for the blind—at Perkins 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 people who are 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.”
Advocates want companies to make their autonomous vehicles disability friendly rather than produce special cars for the visually impaired, which would 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 people who are blind 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 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. In fact, the Perkins group recommended that Optimus Ride create an app for its future users. Jim Denham, Perkins’s educational technology coördinator, 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 users 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 (NFB), 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 incorporate accessibility features into its self-driving car. The NFB also plans to attend an upcoming conference hosted by Daimler, at the invitation of the German 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 people from using autonomous vehicles. When early adopter states, such as Nevada, were considering legislation authorizing 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.”
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 need 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, alongside 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 have 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 Danielsen.
“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.”