Will Driverless Vehicles Be Accessible To The Visually Impaired?

by Dan Roberts
Autonomous (driverless) vehicles are on the way. The technology is already in place, having been successfully tested for several years under every city and highway traveling condition. Many automakers report that their new cars are now being equipped for driverless operation, so the change-over will be easy when the time comes. And that will happen when laws and insurance requirements are updated, a process already underway in many forward-looking states.
This is exciting news for the general public, who will soon have a safer, more convenient, and more economical transportation option. But is anyone working to make these vehicles accessible to the legally blind population (1.3 million in the U.S alone)? Since the users will more likely be using commercial autonomous vehicles (i.e. taxies, vans, and busses), several accessibility issues need to be addressed by the automakers:

  • how to determine from which side of the car to exit
  • how to confirm the accuracy of the destination
  • how to know about the conditions and layout of the space between the car and the destination entrance
  • how to access instructions and payment methods
  • how to be aware of unusual travel conditions

Fortunately, several advocacy agencies and research groups have taken the lead in solving these and other disability-related problems. Among them are the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, National Center for Aging and Disability, Independent Living Research Utilization, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, and the University of Florida. Solutions, which will mean a slightly higher, but necessary, investment by the automakers, might include:

  • audible geographic positioning systems (GPS)
  • artificial intelligence (AI)
  • tactile displays
  • visual displays with adjustable size/contrast options
  • verbal descriptions of route changes, delays, and hazards

Hopefully, by the time that first public driverless vehicle rolls out, virtually every citizen will have equal access to the benefits.