Automated driving technology is sure to bring seismic change to the entire transportation industry, and, indeed, to the way people move. Nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to the blind. It is impossible for people to drive once they have lost a significant amount of sight, and that has a serious effect on their lifestyle. The car is such a major part of the modern American experience that being unable to drive affects a person’s ability to hold a job, have friends, care for themselves, and live independently. Giving the blind access to driving would make a huge positive difference in their lives.
Tesla’s Adaptive Cruise Control
There are many elements of driving that become impossible without the ability to see — reading signage and lights, looking for other cars, observing obstacles, and controlling the car. Yet each of these are either amenable to automation now or will be so in the future. For example, consider a new feature that many new cars now have called adaptive cruise control. Adaptive cruise control is a partial automation feature that lets the car’s internal computer take over during highway driving.
During adaptive cruise control, the car not only maintains its speed, but also maintains a safe following distance from the surrounding cars and even follows curves in the road. The most advanced form of adaptive cruise control comes from Tesla’s Supercruise mode, which is close to a true autopilot and can allow the car to park itself. Adaptive cruise control cannot work on local roads with more complex traffic patterns and driving conditions, at least for now. Adaptive cruise control makes one part of driving easier for everyone, including the visually impaired.
Auto Automation That Works for the Sightless
Other examples of technology favorable to the blind that are enabled by satellite internet technology include lane-departure warning systems, which can provide an auditory warning when the car is drifting out of lane and even automatically correct the drift. Forward collision detection determines when the car might be about to crash into an obstacle in front and can provide a warning, hit the brakes, or both. Both of these latter technologies stop short of full automation but make driving safer for the blind.
One of the most important aspects of automation is that so much of the technology already exists. For example, adaptive cruise control uses, in part, cameras to judge the distance to neighboring cars. It is more and more common for cars to come with rear-facing cameras. They are not necessarily connected to automation, but they demonstrate how easy it is to adapt technology from today to automation.
In terms of advanced research, Google and several other companies are testing out fully automated cars that can drive themselves from one location to another without any input from the driver at all. These require some more advanced imaging tools, but the technology does exist and work. In fact, the main obstacle to making the technology viable is not the hardware, but the software. The engineers and programmers at Google and the major auto companies need to teach computers how to drive. The general technique for doing this is called machine learning, and it takes time and practice. The engineers teach the cars to drive by taking them out and giving them experience just as a human driver learns by practicing on the road.
Potential Setbacks and Obstacles
There are major barriers to automated driving. There are partial forms of automation like adaptive cruise control that are on the road, but full automation faces many legal and financial barriers despite their benefits. There is no regulatory precedent for automated automobiles, and considering the popularity of driving as well as the safety concerns, it could be quite some time before governments settle on a standard for regulation.
There are also important questions about insurance and liability. Auto insurance depends on assigning fault in accidents, but the liability for an automated car is very difficult to determine. There are many possible culprits when an automated car crashes. That makes insurance far more complicated. Car insurance comparison will not nearly be as simple as it is today, with standardized policies that everyone understands. It is unlikely that the problem of regulation will be settled right away — the regulations will change rapidly as governments learn about automated cars and as the technology improves. That will prompt changes in how insurance operates.
In the long run, however, the benefits are so large that they will force big changes. The blind will have the ability to get anywhere they need to go, like shopping, getting back and forth to a job, and visiting with friends. Empowering them in this way will revolutionize their lives, and don’t expect it to be long before this all happens.