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Driverless Cars and the Blind Display True Benefits of Autonomous Tech

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【Summary】At the moment, programs that specialize in the development of self-driving vessels for the blind are on the rise. An institution currently pioneering the practice is Perkins School for the Blind. The forward-thinking group welcomed startups and other companies on campus last August to test their autonomous prototypes on over 200 visually-impaired students.

Michael Cheng    Nov 14, 2016 7:25 AM PT

Many groups see self-driving cars as an effective solution for people with medical conditions. Currently, individuals with physical disabilities are forced to learn how to drive using levers and extended pedals. Although effective, such modifications are not viable for all individuals suffering from crippling diseases, such as dementia, blindness and other illnesses that attack fine and gross motor skills.

That's why when Steve Mahan, a blind man from San Francisco, was given the "thumbs up" to participate in Google's self-driving pilot program earlier this year, developers were able to see firsthand the true applications of autonomous technology.

"It's like riding with a fabulous driver," highlighted Mahan. "Anybody who spends five minutes out in that traffic will realize that the danger are the humans. Personally I can't wait for the robots to start driving."

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Disability-friendly Autonomous Cars

At the moment, programs that specialize in the development of self-driving vessels for the blind are on the rise. An institution currently pioneering the practice is Perkins School for the Blind. The forward-thinking group welcomed startups and other companies on campus last August to test their autonomous prototypes on over 200 visually-impaired students. A standout from the batch of companies was Optimus Ride, a Massachusetts-based startup that focuses on technologies for EVs.

During brainstorming sessions, employees from the school made several recommendations to improve accommodations for blind passengers. Individuals suggested extra space for guide dogs and additional seats for caretakers. To help navigate through digital menus and increase interaction with visual interfaces, haptic feedback and voice control features should also be incorporated in the vehicle.

Furthermore, gesture-based mechanisms may be included in user navigation apps. This would be a sufficient alternative for braille-based systems, allowing blind passengers to communicate with the car in real-time. Jim Denham, Perkins's educational technology coordinator, recommends building a "master app" for visually-impaired driverless car owners. The handheld platform can be used to summon the vehicle from the parking lot or garage, provide extra instructions and offer status updates about the person's environment while traveling.

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Legislative Milestones

Ultimately, the spread of autonomous technology for patients with disabilities is in the hands of federal regulators. There are plenty of startups that are interested in developing driverless products and services for the blind. However, legal guidelines must be in place to allow those with disabilities to operate self-driving cars. In a move in the right direction, officials have already updated specific terminologies that expand the classification of drivers. Acknowledged by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the system now considers AI software as drivers. For the blind, this means they will not need to acquire a driver's license to operate the vehicle.

Some groups, like the American Council of the Blind (ACB), have programs in place that tracks the creation of new laws for blind people and self-driving cars. The ACB ensures that visually-impaired individuals are not restricted from using driverless vehicles in the future. "We don't think being blind should be a reason why we can't take advantage of these cars," said ACB president Kim Charlson. "On the contrary, we think it's a reason we should use them."

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