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.


Tags: Innovation

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  • massappeal

    Thanks for a thoughtful and provocative essay. One item to file in the “good news” column for Mr. Doerr—and for other looking forward to the advent of driverless cars—is the power of Moore’s Law.

    If computing power continues to double every 18 months (as it has for the past 70 years), then driverless cars—along with numerous other radical changes—may well be arrive within the next decade or two. As Kevin Drum of “Mother Jones” magazine wrote recently, “…there’s no reason to think that a driverless car should replicate the way humans drive. They will have access to far more information than we do, and unlike us they’ll have the power to make use of it in real time. And they’ll never get distracted when the phone rings.”

    • LongTom

      I think you’re far too pessimistic. Driverless cars will take off about the same way smart phones have. Production models will have driverless Google technology in 2017, and by 2020 will be everywhere. By 2025, you’ll need special permission to own an ‘antique’ vehicle that doesn’t drive itself–they will be considered far too dangerous to allow on the road in any numbers.

      • fun bobby

        if there are no global wars or pandemics first

        • LongTom

          I’ll keep my fingers crossed! See you in the (driverless) fast lane!

          • fun bobby

            nahh they will replace the windows with video screens, no need to look out

    • fun bobby

      in fact the 2015 Cadillac’s will have smart cruise control that keeps them in the lane and an appropriate distance from the other cars and apply brakes or gas as needed.

  • Reasonable?

    I’m legally blind and I’m of too minds when I read this.
    First like the author, I’m interested in the potential for increased independence.
    However, there a larger social trend toward public transportation and shared transportation. I wonder how these two trends will interact.

    In fact , I think the core problem is economic. There are plenty of able bodie drivers and cars. It’s just unaffordable to employ drivers for transport. The Google car doesn’t solve this problem.

    Ideally, I’d like to see alignment between my problem, legal blindness, and social trend between public and shared transportation.

    So to a certain extent, the Google car seems to be a solution looking for a problem.

    • LongTom

      “A solution looking for a problem?” You aren’t thinking this through. Is 30,000 traffic deaths a year enough of a problem? 2,000,000 crippling traffic-related injuries? The driverless car enables the ultimate in public transportation: small, electric or natural gas powered, city or county-owned vehicles that pick you up when you call, take you where you’re going, then go on to the next customer. No pension funds, no accidents, no smelly fellow passengers, no rude bus drivers, no raucos, heat-choked subway stations–you really don’t have to search very hard for dozens of problems this innovation could eliminate.

      • Reasonable?

        I’m pessimistic about removing “messy” humans from interactions in society.

        Google Cars will likely be controlled by highly centralized control systems, So if and likely when the system fails, the potential damage will be much higher(by orders of magnitude) than we witness today. This is the Black Swan problem.

        I’d argue that trains subways and buses are likely more humane, environmental sound, and safer than an armada of driverless cars..

        We will likely see this tension play out on the streets of city and towns worldwide.

        • LongTom

          I think you are clinging to an odd sentimentality about human involvement in an activity that machines are now obviously far better suited to perform. The cars are not “centrally controlled.” The cars that have operated without drivers for over 500,000 miles in California haven’t had any accidents. Each vehicle has its own LIDAR system for scanning 360 degrees around the vehicle to identify other vehicles, pedestrians, road hazards, etc. Google estimates that widespread implementation will cut traffic fatalities and injuries by at least 90%. You don’t “argue” that trains and subways etc. are better, you merely assert it. In FACT, driverless cars (and buses) are far more fuel efficient than vehicles driven by lead-footed humans. Humane? How about 27,000 fewer traffic deaths per year?

      • fun bobby

        why don’t people own their own cars in your scenario?

        • LongTom

          Hi. Sure people will have their own driverless cars. But in urban areas, why bother to own one if you can just order one up on line, get in when it gets to your door, and call for one when you’re ready to go home? Zipcar is already really popular in cities, and it’s far less convenient than a driverless car scenario.

          • fun bobby

            because in cities most public transit smells of urine. I can see a use for a driverless cab which is what you are describing. Ahhhnold rode around in a driverless cab in total recall. if you have a driverless car you could park it far away and it could pull itself around. jersey will be bulldozed and paved so Manhattanites cars can park themselves there

  • fun bobby

    15% of americans jobs are in transportation. kiss those goodbye. the driverless cars are much safer than ones with stupid or distracted or drunk drivers in them. on the plus side we can get rid of all those foolish drunk driving laws and there will be much less traffic

    • LongTom

      Technology costs some jobs and creates others. The automobile just about wiped out the blacksmiths and buggy whip manufacturers!

      • fun bobby

        what jobs will be created? what 50 million new jobs will be created in America by driverless cars? human beings are becoming obsolete rapidly.

  • X-Ray

    If the car is doing the driving, do I still need a license to ride in the car?

    • fun bobby

      good question maybe Google has a license that applies to all of them. if it were to get a moving violation would Google pay the bill? I was hoping I could ride around drunk in the back or take a nap. I don’t see why that would not be fine. robot drivers will be much safer and faster and no more traffic! I can’t wait. 2015 Caddys will have “smart cruse control” that keep you in you lane going the right speed and a safe distance from the car ahead. these cars will be widespread with aftermarket kits within a decade. i guess all the drivers ed schools will go out of business too