2:00 pm EST – Autonomy as a Helping Hand

As auto and tech companies put together the new self-driving paradigm, advocates for the blind and for elderly Americans are urging them to ensure that the resulting new vehicles take into account the needs of the infirm and disabled from the ground up.

Thus, Mark Riccobano, president of the National Federation of the Blind, told AutoMobili-D that his organization is “watching the development of autonomous vehicles with a lot of excitement but also some nervousness. We recognize there is a lot of potential to open up freedom, independence and greater access to transportation.

“But we’re also a little worried about how blind people will interact with vehicles and have access to interfaces inside the vehicles, because we’ve seen from other tech situations that when interfaces get build without including access to the blind [from the start], we are further behind than we would be otherwise.”

David Strickland was head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Obama, and now among other things he heads an industry outfit called the Self-Driving Coalition. It was on his watch that the federal government prodded automakers to add noise to the operation of electric vehicles so that EVs didn’t take pedestrians and others by surprise, as a safety measure.

And he agreed that “there is an opportunity to design from the ground up and make vehicles more accessible” to blind, otherwise handicapped and other special-needs populations, “to make sure of accessibility for all folks in need.”

Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst for Navigant Research, said that some companies are exploring the technological and ergonomic frontiers of what happens inside self-driving vehicles, demonstrating a sensitivity to how to make the self-driving experience as convenient, safe and fulfilling for all passengers.

And Richard Wallace, director of the Center for Automotive Research, said that “natural-language” research could help in this regard for the disabled in terms of interfacing with the capabilities of the self-driving car.

“So research is occurring, but it has to be designed in when the car is being designed and built,” he said. “Safety – and safety by design and accessibility by design – have to be part of this conversation.”