Driver­less cars give hope to the visu­ally im­paired — but it’s not clear if all au­tomak­ers are on­board

Bangkok Post - - LIFE - JA­SON DEAREN

In 2012, Steve Ma­han, who is blind, climbed into the driver’s seat of a self-driv­ing car and rolled up to the drive-through of a Taco Bell in a video that’s been viewed more than 8 mil­lion times on­line. The piece, pro­duced by Google, cap­tured the po­ten­tial of au­tonomous-car tech­nol­ogy to change the lives of the visu­ally im­paired.

“It was my first time be­hind the steer­ing wheel in seven years and was ab­so­lutely amaz­ing,” Ma­han said.

Self-driv­ing-car ad­vo­cates say that in ad­di­tion to help­ing the dis­abled, the ve­hi­cles will al­low peo­ple to do other tasks while driv­ing and make road­ways safer by re­mov­ing hu­man er­ror.

But six years af­ter Google’s vi­ral video, the US na­tional ad­vo­cates for the es­ti­mated 1.3 mil­lion legally blind peo­ple in the US are wor­ried the in­dus­try is not fac­tor­ing their needs into the de­sign of the new tech­nol­ogy, a mis­take they say will make the cars more ex­pen­sive and harder for them to ac­cess.

“Al­though we have been held up as ob­vi­ous ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the tech­nol­ogy in con­ver­sa­tions and pre­sen­ta­tions, this will have just been ex­ploita­tion if the sys­tems are not ac­ces­si­ble,” said Anil Lewis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind’s Jerni­gan In­sti­tute.

“How about in­stead of Taco Bell, we demon­strate a blind per­son in­de­pen­dently op­er­at­ing an au­tonomous ve­hi­cle, drop­ping off his/her kids at school on the way to work, and maybe stop­ping by a Star­bucks on the way?”

The con­cerns are fu­elling new re­search out­side the auto in­dus­try to de­velop data and soft­ware meant to help en­sure the needs of the blind are met when au­tonomous cars be­come com­mon­place.

In a Uni­ver­sity of Florida study, blind peo­ple are us­ing ex­per­i­men­tal soft­ware that could be eas­ily in­stalled in cars and peo­ples’ phones. On a re­cent sunny win­ter day in cen­tral Florida, Sharon Van Et­ten eased into the back­seat of an SUV and be­gan speak­ing to a com­puter screen in front of her.

“Where do you want to go?” the com­puter’s voice re­sponded.

Van Et­ten, who is legally blind, said “Kmart”, and off the car sped, the com­puter’s voice in­ton­ing, “Cen­tral Chris­tian Church on the left’’ and other land­marks as they coasted down the street. When the driver pulled the car up to the store, the voice told Van Et­ten which side to exit from and men­tioned some of the ob­sta­cles she’d face be­tween the car and the store en­trance.

Uni­ver­sity of Florida re­searcher Ju­lian Brink­ley de­vel­oped the pro­gramme, which he has named “Atlas”. Us­ing data he col­lects from users like Van Et­ten and oth­ers through col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Florida Cen­ter for the Blind in Ocala, he’s fig­ur­ing out the spe­cific needs blind peo­ple have us­ing self-driv­ing cars, and us­ing his soft­ware to solve prob­lems.

“If I’m a visu­ally im­paired per­son and I don’t have the abil­ity to ver­ify visu­ally that I’m at the ap­pro­pri­ate lo­ca­tion, how do I know that it’s not drop­ping me off in a field some­where?” Brink­ley said. “In the case of au­tonomous cars, hope­fully ac­ces­si­bil­ity will be moved to the fore­front by some of the re­search.”

Brink­ley doesn’t have ac­cess to a self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle so in­stead uses a process de­vel­oped by Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity re­searchers in a spe­cially con­fig­ured con­ven­tional ve­hi­cle. Par­tic­i­pants in­ter­act with ve­hi­cle-con­trol soft­ware in what ap­pears to be a self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle, and the ve­hi­cle’s driver, hid­den be­hind a par­ti­tion, uses in­struc­tions from the soft­ware to drive to the right place. Par­tic­i­pants don’t know that a hu­man driver is at the con­trols.

Re­searchers at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Texas A&M Uni­ver­sity and the US Army Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory also are work­ing on ac­ces­si­bil­ity is­sues for driver­less ve­hi­cles for blind and other peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

At Waymo, Google’s self-driv­ing-car com­pany that started nearly a decade ago, of­fi­cials say visu­ally im­paired em­ploy­ees con­trib­ute to de­sign and re­search. While no spe­cific sys­tem for blind riders has been com­pleted, the com­pany says it’s de­vel­op­ing a mo­bile app, Braille la­bels and au­dio cues.

Spokes­peo­ple for Gen­eral Mo­tors Cruise AV group, Nis­san North Amer­ica and Toy­ota Re­search In­sti­tute all said the com­pa­nies are com­mit­ted to ac­ces­si­bil­ity in gen­eral but of­fered no fur­ther com­ment.

Ma­han, the man fa­mous for the YouTube video who still con­sults with Waymo, said he’s cau­tiously op­ti­mistic.

“Au­tonomous ve­hi­cles aren’t be­ing de­signed for blind peo­ple; we’re one of the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the tech­nol­ogy,” the 65-year-old said from his San Jose, Cal­i­for­nia, home.

“They’re work­ing on it. I don’t push. They ex­pose me to what they’re work­ing on, and so I’m pa­tiently wait­ing.”

Au­tonomous-car in­dus­try an­a­lysts say the needs of dis­abled peo­ple are be­ing dis­cussed as de­sign­ers fig­ure out how users will in­ter­face with the cars, but there are many com­pet­ing de­mands.

“They’re try­ing to fig­ure out what way to in­ter­face with these ve­hi­cles for riders, and to build a sense of trust about what the ve­hi­cles are do­ing,” said Sam Abuel­samid, an an­a­lyst with Nav­i­gant Re­search in Detroit.

“But right now, I don’t know if any­one has all the an­swers.”

In the mean­time, ad­vo­cates for the blind have turned to Florida’s Brink­ley and other re­searchers to push de­vel­op­ment for­ward.

Back in Ocala, Cinzhasha Farmer gig­gled ner­vously as the Atlas voice spoke to her.

The 41-year-old was ea­ger to par­tic­i­pate in Brink­ley’s study so she can one day drive with­out re­ly­ing on oth­ers.

“It’s one of my goals, and I don’t know how I’ll ever ac­com­plish it — but that car may do it,” she said with a smile.

Right now, I don’t know if any­one has all the an­swers

ABOVE Sharon Van Et­ten, lis­ten­ing to a com­put­erised voice in a ve­hi­cle equipped with soft­ware meant to help the visu­ally im­paired in­ter­act with self-driv­ing cars.

LEFT Cinzhasha Farmer, who is blind, ex­it­ing a ve­hi­cle equipped with soft­ware meant to help the visu­ally im­paired in­ter­act with self­driv­ing cars in Ocala, Florida.

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