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A revolution in the making: How self-driving cars might transform the lives of blind and vision-impaired people

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For most people, the promise of autonomous cars is evolutionary: If you drive already, having a car that can make turns and change lanes for you is just an added convenience and safety feature.

For blind and vision-impaired people, though, the nascent technology could be revolutionary — creating mobility opportunities, or restoring them, for millions of Americans.

That’s the premise of a new study drawn from a collaboration between a Newton nonprofit, the University of Maine, and the automaker Toyota, which examines how car companies can design the coming wave of self-driving cars with vision-impaired drivers in mind.

“We’re in the phase of the mad rush for vehicle manufacturers to produce a fully autonomous vehicle,” said Greg Donnelly, the CEO of the Carroll Center in Newton, an organization that provides services for blind and vision impaired people and consults with companies seeking to make products more accessible. “Our hope is that they are inclusive and accessible.”

Right now, as the research paper says, blind and vision-impaired people “must rely on others for transportation, either through friends, family, public transportation, or rideshare” — options that all come with distinct disadvantages, such as rideshare drivers who refuse to allow guide dogs in their vehicles.


Chevrolet Cruise autonomous vehicles sit parked in a lot in San Francisco. Autonomous vehicle companies Cruise and Waymo have been testing their vehicles throughout the California city.Justin Sullivan/Getty

Of course, a fully self-driving car by definition doesn’t require any input from the driver. But a driver still enjoys a level of control — to change a trip’s destination, for instance, or pull over in an emergency. To be inclusive, self-driving cars need to make it possible for blind drivers to give those sorts of instructions to the vehicle.

A “truly accessible experience must enable user input, for all people, in many driving scenarios,” the paper argues.

The paper explores an interface with three components. The first is audio: basically, the car and driver could talk to each other. The second is haptics, meaning tactile feedback to the driver (vibrations, for instance). The third is gestures: Drivers could use hand signals that the vehicle would recognize.


Donnelly says it’s the first study that he knows of that looks at all three modalities — but that some carmakers might be developing similar proprietary technologies. Within a few years, he hopes that a technology that could revolutionize the lives of blind people will be on the roads.”

Access is one of the biggest barriers to everything for the blind. Having the level of independence” promised by self-driving cars, “is a game changer.”

Alan Wirzbicki is Globe deputy editor for editorials. He can be reached at