Blind groups push to shape driver­less tech

Ad­vo­cates urge that rules, de­sign al­low dis­abled users

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - RYAN BEENE

Anil Lewis was be­hind the wheel of his Ford Mus­tang con­vert­ible on a sunny At­lanta day in 1988 when he nearly hit a pedes­trian who ap­peared in a cross­walk ahead of him, seem­ingly out of nowhere.

It was then Lewis re­al­ized his de­te­ri­o­rat­ing eye­sight would soon end his days be­hind the wheel. Now 53 and legally blind, the prospect of fully au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles gives him hope of re­turn­ing to the road on his own.

“If it’s de­signed cor­rectly, if the ve­hi­cles are ac­ces­si­ble,” said Lewis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind Jerni­gan In­sti­tute, which works to de­velop tech­nolo­gies and ser­vices that help the blind. “It’s go­ing to create an im­proved abil­ity to travel that doesn’t cur­rently ex­ist.”

The rev­o­lu­tion in self­driv­ing cars holds prom­ise for a seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion that thought they’d never be able to op­er­ate a ve­hi­cle: the blind. Ad­vo­cates for the es­ti­mated 1.3 mil­lion legally blind peo­ple in the U.S., and mil­lions more with other dis­abil­i­ties, have joined au­tomak­ers and tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies in lob­by­ing Congress to help spur the roll­out of self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles.

A panel of the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee voted unan­i­mously last week to ad­vance the first leg­is­la­tion on driver­less cars. Ad­vo­cates for the blind have let lawmakers know they have a spe­cial set of con­cerns: They want ac­ces­si­bil­ity in­cor­po­rated into car de­sign, and for states to steer clear of laws that would pro­hibit the blind from one day sit­ting in the driver’s seat.

They’re up against a reg­u­la­tory and in­dus­try paradigm that as­sumes driv­ers see the road ahead. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers and com­pa­nies work­ing on fully self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles — still many years away from be­ing widely avail­able — are only be­gin­ning to tackle new chal­lenges to en­sure that the blind can ben­e­fit, and some road­blocks are al­ready emerg­ing.

Alex Ep­stein, se­nior di­rec­tor of dig­i­tal strat­egy at the Na­tional Safety Coun­cil, said au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy still has a long way to go un­til ve­hi­cles don’t have a steer­ing wheel or brake and the driver can be re­moved from the equa­tion.

“In the­ory, the con­cept is a won­der­ful idea,” Ep­stein said. “The ques­tion is how does the auto in­dus­try and the tech in­dus­try get to that place.”

The Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind has be­gun air­ing ra­dio ads as part of a new coali­tion rep­re­sent­ing the hear­ing-impaired, the el­derly, car­mak­ers and Se­cur­ing Amer­ica’s Fu­ture En­ergy, an en­ergy-in­de­pen­dence ad­vo­cate. It has also joined the Self-Driv­ing Coali­tion for Safer Streets, an ad­vo­cacy group that rep­re­sents Ford Mo­tor Co., Volvo Cars AB, Al­pha­bet Inc.’s Waymo unit, Uber Tech­nolo­gies Inc. and Lyft Inc.

The auto and tech in­dus­try’s vi­sion of rob­o­taxi fleets could im­prove ac­cess to em­ploy­ment and ed­u­ca­tion that have long been among the blind fed­er­a­tion’s top pol­icy pri­or­i­ties, said spokesman Chris Danielsen. The group is con­cerned about state poli­cies that could limit blind peo­ple’s ac­cess to au­ton­o­mous rides in the fu­ture.

Florida, Michi­gan and New York al­ready have laws that re­quire op­er­a­tors of au­to­mated ve­hi­cles to have a driver’s li­cense, which man­dates a vi­sion test. What’s more, even states lack­ing statutes with such re­quire­ments would likely de­fer to cur­rent law, cre­at­ing a de facto driver’s li­cense re­quire­ment, ac­cord­ing to Amanda Es­sex, trans­porta­tion pol­icy spe­cial­ist at the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures.

“That ob­vi­ously freezes us out,” said Danielsen. “Cer­tain pol­i­cy­mak­ers will say that even though it’s a self-driv­ing car, I don’t want a blind per­son be­hind the wheel be­cause I don’t be­lieve that that’s safe.”

Re­quir­ing that pas­sen­gers in an au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle that needs no hu­man in­ter­ven­tion have a driver’s li­cense is a “need­less re­stric­tion” that would blunt the ef­fect of the tech­nol­ogy on the dis­abled com­mu­nity, Se­cur­ing Amer­ica’s Fu­ture En­ergy said in a re­cent study com­mis­sioned along with the Ru­d­er­man Fam­ily Foun­da­tion, an ad­vo­cacy group for the dis­abled.

The en­ergy group has lob­bied ag­gres­sively to ad­vance au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles. Its study found that im­proved ac­cess to trans­porta­tion from fully au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles would save $19 bil­lion in health care costs from missed doc­tor’s ap­point­ments and help im­prove job prospects for some 2 mil­lion dis­abled peo­ple.

The House bill would leave states in charge of their tra­di­tional ar­eas such as ve­hi­cle reg­is­tra­tion, in­sur­ance and li­cens­ing, but says the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is the only en­tity that can set safety stan­dards for au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles. The draft dropped a pro­vi­sion from an ear­lier pro­posal that sought to pro­mote ac­cess to au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles for the dis­abled.

Ad­vo­cates did win other pro­vi­sions though, in­clud­ing the cre­ation of an ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee within the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion to ex­am­ine dis­abled ac­cess.

Self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles that don’t re­quire in­ter­ven­tion by a hu­man driver will present new pol­icy chal­lenges at the state level that must be ad­dressed to en­sure the blind and dis­abled can take full ad­van­tage of the tech­nol­ogy, ac­cord­ing to David Strick­land, coun­sel for the Self-Driv­ing Coali­tion for Safer Streets and a for­mer chief of the safety agency.

“We’re go­ing to be mov­ing from a model where peo­ple are driv­ers to a model to where peo­ple are go­ing to be pas­sen­gers,” he said. “You’re go­ing to end up seg­re­gat­ing them from the use of that tech­nol­ogy un­less you amend the li­cen­sure laws.”

It’s a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion for au­tomak­ers, which gen­er­ally

haven’t had to con­sider ac­cess for groups such as the blind or peo­ple with other dis­abil­i­ties, such as paral­y­sis. Ac­ces­si­ble ve­hi­cles are largely built by spe­cialty retrofitters. And it’s up to gov­ern­ment tran­sit author­i­ties and taxi op­er­a­tors to en­sure trains, taxis and other modes of trans­porta­tion can be used by peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

“When you’re talk­ing about the nar­row as­pects of para­tran­sit, you’ve re­ally never had to think about hu­man-ma­chine in­ter­face on a broad scale for the dis­abled,” said Strick­land, who spoke at the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind’s na­tional con­ven­tion ear­lier this month. Au­tomak­ers will now have to “tackle the ques­tion on a broad con­sumer scale.”

Some of the com­pa­nies de­vel­op­ing driver­less cars — such as Gen­eral Mo­tors Co.

and Google par­ent Al­pha­bet Inc. — have al­ready be­gun to tackle that.

In 2015, Steve Ma­han, from the Santa Clara Val­ley Blind Cen­ter, trav­eled around Austin, Texas, by him­self in a Google car with­out a steer­ing wheel or floor ped­als, ac­cord­ing to an an­nounce­ment last year by the Al­pha­bet ini­tia­tive, now known as Waymo.

Blind GM em­ploy­ees are ad­vis­ing com­pany de­sign­ers work­ing on au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles to make them ac­ces­si­ble, and one fo­cus has been on the use of smart­phone apps tai­lored for blind users, ac­cord­ing to Re­nee Ar­ring­ton-John­son, an in­dus­trial en­gi­neer with GM for 40 years who led the ef­fort un­til she re­tired this month.

Other tech­nolo­gies are still in the re­search stage.

“This is a big mar­ket that you will have open to you, and this is in­de­pen­dence for peo­ple who are now depend­ing on pub­lic trans­porta­tion or on taxis,” Ar­ring­ton-John­son, who is legally blind, said, de­scrib­ing how she pitched se­nior GM ex­ec­u­tives on the idea. “In the past you didn’t re­ally nec­es­sar­ily mar­ket to a per­son who was blind or low vi­sion be­cause that re­ally wasn’t your big mar­ket.”

She said most of the changes need to oc­cur in the way in­for­ma­tion is com­mu­ni­cated to blind users. Just like sighted peo­ple, blind peo­ple want to know where they are and about the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment upon ex­it­ing the car.

The Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind dis­cussed the blind com­mu­nity’s needs for an au­ton­o­mous car at Daim­ler AG’s an­nual Sus­tain­abil­ity Fo­rum last year. Any com­pany that finds out how to tap this mar­ket “will be the win­ners in this game,” Lewis said.

“I’ve al­ways said the hard­est thing for me when I went blind was giv­ing up my driver’s li­cense,” he said. “It was a sym­bol of my in­de­pen­dence.”

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