For technology enthusiasts, Google’s new self-driving prototype is an engineering marvel. But for sight-impaired people, and others with disabilities, a self-driving car may mean much more.
“Where this would change my life is to give me the independence and the flexibility to go to the places I both want to go and need to go when I need to,” said Steve Mahan, who is sight-impaired and tested a self-driving Toyota Prius.
The car uses advanced sensors and a global-positioning system to navigate streets and is electronically limited to a speed of 40 kilometers per hour. Google began outfitting Priuses and Lexuses with driverless technology in 2010 and is joined in the development of such cars by General Motors, Ford, Audi, Nissan and Toyota.
Many places across the U.S. are preparing for a self-driving future. Four states — Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan — and the city of Washington have taken legal steps to permit the use of self-driving cars. As the population ages, officials believe that self-driving cars may help the elderly in addition to the sight-impaired and people with leg or upper-body impairments.
The technology advances that make self-driving vehicles possible start with an investment in youth education. The White House holds an annual science fair and supports STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) through the Educate to Innovate initiative. Innovators working to help visually impaired people gain tools similar to those enjoyed by others include some as young as 13-year-old Shubham Banerjee, who has built a low-cost Braille printer.