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Opinion

For Low-Vision People Like Me, Autonomous Driving Could Change Everything

A lot of people who work in the technology industry are tantalized by the potential of autonomous vehicles. For them, true self-driving is the Holy Grail of innovation: A chance to put artificial intelligence to the ultimate test by reinventing transportation. That reinvention couldn’t be more relevant to Blind and low-vision people like myself. If done right, autonomous driving will be more than a luxurious technological marvel—it will be downright transformative for legions of disabled people. For us, it would instantly change driving from exclusionary to inclusionary

Most people take driving for granted—they have normal vision, and they can get in their car literally any time they want to go somewhere. But people like me don’t have that luxury. I have low vision due to premature birth, which means what I see is somewhat fuzzy and I need objects to be as close as possible in order to view them effectively. The government calls this “legal blindness,” but that’s not an official medical diagnosis—it merely means my vision is so impaired that I qualify for various social services. When it comes to cars, I could very well pass the written portion of the driver’s test, but it’s the driving part that’s the dealbreaker. I cannot see well enough to safely be behind the wheel—for my own sake and that of other people. 

Because of my disability, my travel plans have to be meticulously considered; I don’t have the freedom to go for a drive on a whim. Even if it’s to the grocery store to get some eggs or milk, I have to consider variables like time of day, weather, distance, and available transit options. A Blind person going somewhere is the antithesis of a sighted person with a car “just going for a drive.” It’s more like that well-planned cross-country road trip, except we do it all the time just to get around the neighborhood. Most of us have made peace with the fact we can’t drive, and we do get around—it’s simply that having a car would obviously make getting around easier. 

As such, it’s exciting to fantasize about a scenario in which a company builds a self-driving vehicle that we could use. Get in the car, input our destination, then buckle up and enjoy the ride. The only way a Blind or low-vision person could “drive” a car is if it had a full-on self-driving mode, where the car literally does the entirety of the maneuvering and navigation. 

For accessibility’s sake, there are technological advances in autonomous vehicles that can help make them inclusive of the disability community. Pairing one’s phone with a car’s software system is an advantage, but it would be even better if these systems had auditory cues for when a car reached a curb or was parked. Maybe it would even tell you when you’ve reached your destination. Maybe it tells you when the windows are up or not, or the door is locked or not. Having auditory cues for what is happening in the car is a great bimodal sensory experience for anyone, but can be especially beneficial for someone who may have trouble finding the controls for the door lock and windows. Likewise, announcing your destination will be helpful to not only gain your bearings, but also to differentiate between other stops such as traffic lights and gas/charging stations. 

Companies like Argo AI and Waymo envision self-driving cars in ride-hail situations as a first step toward commercialization. This makes sense since it could be years before autonomous vehicles come down in price to facilitate mass private ownership. What does this mean for the Blind and low vision community? In the short term, AVs have the opportunity to improve the ride-hailing experience for us. Some drivers refuse guide dogs, which AVs shouldn’t do. Language barriers between drivers and riders should go away as voice-recognition technology already understands many languages and is improving quickly. Pick-up and drop-offs can also be more exact with an AV.

But the truth is, people like me already make heavy use of ride-hail services. AVs should make them better but they won’t get us to the real goal: ownership. The primary way that autonomous vehicles will truly make a difference for the Blind community is if and when we reach the threshold of being able to buy our own AV. If that occurs, it will be game-changing. I could get in my car and go where I want, when I want, just as a sighted person does now. It would fully deliver on the inclusionary promise of the technology.

Consider also the legal aspects of driving and owning cars. Right now, my vision precludes me from driving because the laws on the books say I need to be able to see a certain distance in order to get my license. If I don’t have a license, I can’t buy a car. If I don’t have a car, I can’t buy insurance. If I don’t have insurance, I can’t drive a car. These legislative hurdles are not insignificant.

A component to making autonomous vehicles mainstream is the ability for the technology to be so good (and so affordable) that lawmakers are forced to reconsider what it means, at a pragmatic level, to own a car. Like the introduction of the iPhone 14 years ago, when autonomous vehicles are available to the least able among us, they will be able disrupt the current transportation paradigms even further. The technical chops of building self-driving cars are important, but they’re not *everything*. The logistical, bureaucratic side matters just as much—especially when you consider their ramifications for people like me. 

Technologists are excited for self-driving vehicles for their Jetsons-esque futurism, and phasing out gas-powered cars will certainly be better environmentally as we battle climate change. For the Blind and low vision, however, the optimism for a future with autonomous cars is driven by the desire for a heretofore unattainable level of personal autonomy that will forever change the way we live our lives. 

Steven Aquino is a freelance tech journalist and Ground Truth contributor based in San Francisco, CA, where he covers accessibility and assistive technologies. He is a regular contributor to Forbes, with a column on accessibility and assistive tech. His work has appeared in iMore, TechCrunch, Macworld, and more. Follow Steven on Twitter at @steven_aquino. 

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