The self-driving car, embraced as a stress-reducing convenience for harried drivers and a potential advance in road safety, could also prove to be a life-changing breakthrough for many people with disabilities, granting them a new measure of independence.
While much of the necessary technology is well along in development, those awaiting vehicles that can provide unassisted transportation will have to be patient.
Self-driving cars have been the stuff of science fiction and experimentation since the early days of the automobile. In 1925, Time magazine carried an article about a car that cruised New York City streets without a driver, guided by radio control. The General Motors Futurama exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair depicted a future of self-driving cars by the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes.
The Bel Geddes vision, with its implications for the disabled, may be getting closer to reality. Automakers have demonstrated cars capable of self-driving operation, and in August the chief executive of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, said the automaker would offer a car with “autonomous drive technology” by 2020.
Mr. Ghosn did not promise a vehicle that could be operated without a driver at the wheel, and a Nissan spokeswoman, Wendy Payne, said the company had not studied the disability issue.
Confirming that Nissan’s first self-driving car would require an able driver, she said that all automakers were taking that approach: “At this point, the driver has to be able to operate the vehicle.”
G.M. is among the makers demonstrating self-driving prototypes, and a driver-assistance technology that it calls Super Cruise, to be introduced in 2017 model Cadillacs, makes partly autonomous operation possible on the highway. Still, the company is reserved in its optimism.
“We believe that one day there will be fully automated cars that drive themselves under all circumstances,” a G.M. spokesman, Dan Flores, said about the potential of driverless vehicles for the handicapped. “A lot of societal benefits are possible, but we’re years away from achieving those benefits.”
Audi recently obtained a permit to test self-driving cars on California roads. But the cars are equipped with manual controls so a driver can take over if necessary.
“Present-day tech developed by every automaker and accepted by state laws requires human ability to take over,” a company spokesman, Brad Stertz, wrote in an email. “Fully autonomous driving is mostly a human generation away, no matter who is making promises.”
Google is making promises, or at least offering suggestions. The company, which declined to provide an interview for this article, has developed two prototypes. The first was a standard vehicle fitted with sensors, hardware and computers that enabled self-driving. Equipped with steering wheel and brakes, it could be operated by a backup driver in an emergency.
The second-generation Google car is entirely driverless and has no steering wheel or brake pedal. Driver intervention is impossible, even in an emergency, so its design would be appropriate for people physically unable to operate a vehicle.
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In a blog post last April, Chris Umson, director of Google’s self-driving car project, said the company was growing more optimistic about reaching an achievable goal — “a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention.”
In a statement provided to The Times, Google said that the potential of a self-driver to help those with disabilities could be realized only if the human operator were taken out of the equation. The company maintains that denying the driver an active role in vehicle control will also eliminate human error and improve driving safety.
Steve Mahan of Morgan Hill, Calif., executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, has ridden in both of Google’s prototypes. Mr. Mahon, 61, is legally blind. Google contacted him about three years ago to discuss how self-driving vehicles might benefit the disabled. He was offered a chance to experience Google’s retrofitted Toyota Prius and provide feedback. He has since ridden in the new driverless prototype.
“My read on Google’s approach is, how do you create vehicles that are smart enough to drive on existing roadways,” Mr. Mahan said in a phone interview. “They’re looking at a paradigm shift in transportation, where the vehicles assume all of the driving tasks for efficiency and safety.”
He added: “I’ve been in the Google cars quite a bit in urban traffic and highway. The technology is incredibly capable. They drive like good drivers. I spoke to a programmer who helps define how the car behaves. I told him, ‘So you’re the person who made these cars drive like my wife.’ ”
Google’s driverless vehicle is in testing. Because California law requires that self-driving vehicles be fitted with backup manual systems, the company has installed a temporary steering wheel and controls. On a website devoted to the car, Google said, “We’ll remove these manual controls after the prototypes have finished being tested and permitted, because our vehicles are ultimately designed to operate without a human driver.”
The marketplace — together with regulators — could have the final say as to what type of autonomous car is ultimately offered for sale and whether the vehicle could accommodate those incapable of controlling the car manually.
Research doesn’t suggest that a clear majority of drivers are eager to turn the wheel over to a robotic driver. A survey by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine, for example, found that 48 percent of Americans would be interested in a self-driving car; 50 percent would not. The survey did not attempt to determine whether those who were accepting of self-driving technology would be willing to relinquish all control to a vehicle without a steering wheel or brake pedal.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has not issued regulations for self-driving vehicles, and it would not comment for the record in regard to potential rules. But it has issued guidelines for on-road testing and advised the states in regard to on-road operation.
In a statement, the safety agency said that fully automated vehicles required further testing and should be equipped with backup steering and brake controls during the testing period. That means that a driver must be capable of taking control of the vehicle — an action that may not be feasible for people with severe disabilities.
Not everyone who lacks the mobility needed to drive a conventional car wants a driverless car. Bruce Chargo, a 55-year-old financial planner from Clio, Mich., who is paralyzed below his chest and has no control of his hands, feet or back muscles, drives specially equipped vehicles with his upper arms and head.
“A self-driving car isn’t for me,” he said in a telephone interview. “There are very few things I can do independently, but I can drive. If self-driving cars reach dealer showrooms, funding for vehicles like mine might not be available. That concerns me.”
But Mr. Mahan, the director of the center for blind people, wants to be mobile as well, and alternative-control systems can’t enable a vision-impaired driver.
“I miss driving,” he said. “My experience with Google has been terrific, and I want it to happen. Everyone in the blind community wants it to happen.”
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