Transportation is one of the main obstacles that those with disabilities face. Though public transport tries to be accommodating, there are still several obstacles that the disabled have to navigate in order to get to a specific location — walking from train or bus stops, shelling out money for cab rides, relying on friends and family for transportation. It can be a full-time job.
But there is good news for those who need to get where they’re going without having to dodge traffic or tip a driver. It’s the self-driving car, and it’s coming soon.
Google has recently launched its Self-Driving Car Project, and is currently testing its cars on open roads and public streets in California. It has even managed to traverse Lombard Street in San Francisco, famous for its sharp hairpin turns. Google has two different models — an older generation modified Lexus with an onboard computer and sensors, as well as a second generation driverless pod, without a steering wheel or pedals.
Both models have chauffeured a variety of disabled passengers, including visually impaired riders such as Steve Mahan, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center. “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.”
How does it work? Google designed their vehicle with “push-button” technology, and strives to benefit the disabled population by making it “easier, safer and more enjoyable to get around.” The car is designed to replicate human response. A rooftop array of sensors detect its location, surroundings, stationary and moving obstacles such as pedestrians, bicycles, and other vehicles. They navigate and obey traffic rules through sophisticated algorithms and controllers that eliminate any need for driver input through steering wheels or brakes.
This innovation in technology is not limited to the Google car. Companies including Audi, BMW, Ford and Mercedes are all currently working to develop their own driverless, or driver-assisted vehicles. Uber has even expressed an interest in releasing a fleet of driverless vehicles. In addition to the benefits to the disabled population, there are environmental benefits, as well – according to Ohio Gas and Berkley Labs, autonomous cars could cut fuel usage by up to 90%.
According to the New York Times, since the second-generation Google driverless vehicle is designed to run without driver intervention, it would be appropriate for people physically unable to operate a car. 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.”
Of course, there are concerns as to how this new technology will impact the marketplace.
Insurance companies will have to modify their liability policies as self-driving cars increasingly eliminate driver error as the cause of vehicular fatalities. At the same time, the automotive business model will change from individual ownership to usage-as-needed. Also, the disabled who already operate specially modified vehicles worry that self-driving cars might threaten their funding. The costs of the self-driving car are estimated to add $7,000 to $10,000 to the normal sticker price of a new vehicle. It is still unclear whether or not government assistance will incorporate the self-driving car into its current funding programs.
There is still much testing to be done. For instance, the vehicles are not yet able to navigate unforeseen obstacles such as construction zones, unexpected weather or disabled traffic lights.
But, the fact remains that these efforts to bring the self-driving, or driver-assisted cars to the public will greatly benefit those with limited ability. Whether it’s shopping, doctor’s appointments, getting to work or visiting family, Google is committed to making life easier, more convenient, and safer for those with disabilities.
Want to see what it’s like to ride in a self driving car?