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Are Blind Drivers Going to take over the Roads?

A video of a blind man piloting one of Google's self-driving cars has swept across the Internet over the last couple of days. In case you missed it, the video is available with audio description here:

This is of course partly a publicity play on the part of Google, and I'm never a fan of portrayals of blindness that use pity, or tug on heartstrings, or generally focus on why it is so hard to be blind. Still, the possibility that self-driving cars may one day become common place does potentially have significant implications for blind people.

For me, the most immediate implication is in the area of employment. We all know the unemployment rate of blind people ranges between 70 and 80 percent, depending on who you ask. There are a wide variety of jobs, however, that blind people are qualified to do but that require a driver's license. I do believe that accommodations can often be made in these situations, but unfortunately, employers are not always willing to explore alternatives and simply do not hire blind people in the first place. A self-driving car could create many new employment prospects for blind people.

A second major implication is for those people living in rural and other areas with a lack of good public transportation. Blind people rely more heavily on public transportation, and I've heard it said that it can be isolating to live in areas where one cannot easily use public transportation to run errands, visit friends, or get to work. No longer having to rely on friends and family for transportation and no longer being constrained by their schedules would significantly change a blind person's life, particularly in those areas lacking good public transportation.

These are just two major implications; there are many others. I did, however, suggest self-driving cars could only potentially change the lives of blind people. There is no guarantee here. Whether the technology will be safe and become common place, and whether blind people will be permitted to utilize the technology, are two separate questions. The blind man in the video could not legally have taken the self-driving car for a spin if the Google employee sitting next to him did not have the power to stop the vehicle with a button on the dashboard. I think most of us would agree that the technology has not been tested enough to give up the requirement to have a human being ultimately be in control. What I worry about, though, is the possibility that even if the technology is well-tested, and even if the non-visual interfaces being developed through the NFB's Blind Driver Challenge have also been tested an incorporated into a vehicle, the idea of a blind person "driving" a car without a sighted person looking over her shoulder is one that many will reject as impossible.

Of course safety is tremendously important. These are dangerous machines, and many have been hurt and killed by their misuse—mostly the misuse of sighted people I might add—but what I do not want is people's prejudice and misunderstanding to be what determines policy. This happens all too often. My suspicion is that, as is the case in so many other areas, we will have to use the courts and human rights complaints to have our right to drive be respected. Because of the impact this technology could have on our lives, if we have to have that battle, I hope we have it sooner rather than later.


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