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Innovation

Among other benefits, self-driving cars would liberate the blind from the indifference of public transport. (jurvetson/flickr)

On July 8, 2013, The New York Times published an article entitled “Disruptions: How Driverless Cars Could Reshape Cities.” Because I’m a blind attorney living in Augusta, Maine where public transportation is, in any realistic, commutable sense, a siren’s song, I desperately want one.

Cars that drive themselves mean that blind people will be independent in transportation and free from the indifference of public transit. It will also mean that, as soon as the general public realizes its potential, the driverless car will develop in the same manner that voice activation and audio output software developed for smart phones: What began as expensive, advanced adaptive technology to help the blind use computers will become an affordable and commonplace toy for the sighted.

Because I’m a blind attorney living in Augusta, Maine where public transportation is, in any realistic, commutable sense, a siren’s song, I desperately want one.

In 2009, researchers were trying to make the far-fetched notion a reality even while stressing obstacles like the public acceptance of blind drivers. By 2010, the car was a prototype reality, and by March 2012, the “Google car” was being test-driven on main thoroughfares in California. By April 2012, Google reported it had “completed more than 200,000 miles of computer-led driving — only two crashes were reported, both with a human at the wheel, leading one insurer to call the driverless cars ‘shockingly’ safe and efficient.”

I’m not sure if the quoted insurer, Bellevue, is open for business in Maine but I want their phone number. When I buy my 2-door, dark blue Google car with gray leather interior I’ll be looking for some coverage.

Speaking of insurance, a recent story by Los Angeles’ ABC affiliate raises these related and important questions: Who’s responsible in the case of an accident? And, can a blind person drive?

There it is: “Can a blind person drive?” One person is quoted saying that California motorists are not “guinea pigs.” For their part, consumer groups are apparently also concerned about safety, and then there is that annoying reality that computer software doesn’t always work the way the manual says it will. And then, the icing on the cake, when the article asks, “What about children driving?” (I had to read that last line twice to make sure it was really there.)

And just like that the focus shifts away from a car intended to help blind people to all the potential pitfalls. Are you scared yet? Remember that insurer saying that driverless cars are “shockingly safe”?

So for all the naysayers, blind or not, soon enough you will have to adjust your thinking. Whether it’s now or when you see one of “us” next to you on your way to work on I-95 someday is up to you.

I will concede there are some practical problems. For example, the cars have trouble staying between the lines on snow-covered ground or in bad weather, definitely a concern here in Maine. They also seem to have trouble identifying street signs and pedestrians.

Still, the fully autonomous Google car has logged more than 435,000 test miles. And soon, more than seven states will permit test driving of driverless cars on their roads.

I want to remain positive. But if I’m being honest with myself, I cannot imagine any state DMV permitting blind people behind the wheel of driverless cars anytime soon. Regulatory loopholes — like requiring blind motorists to have a valid driver’s license “in the event that the car’s automation fails” — are likely to keep cropping up and keep me from realizing my dream.

But I still want one. I despise having to rely upon public transportation. I’d like to tell lawmakers to either put this technology on the road in a realistic sense or fund public transit so that I don’t need a Google car in the first place.

But until attitudes change, I’m back where I started. All is not lost, of course, the technology has come a long way in the past four years or so and will only continue to improve. The will to make driverless cars a reality is here to stay. So for all the naysayers, blind or not, soon enough you will have to adjust your thinking. Whether it’s now or when you see one of “us” next to you on your way to work on I-95 someday is up to you.

Or perhaps my Google car will be jet black with heavily tinted windows. I’ll let ‘em wonder who’s inside.

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Tags: Innovation

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