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Blind groups push to shape driverless tech

Advocates urge that rules, design allow disabled users by RYAN BEENE BLOOMBERG NEWS | July 24, 2017 at 2:19 a.m.

Anil Lewis was behind the wheel of his Ford Mustang convertible on a sunny Atlanta day in 1988 when he nearly hit a pedestrian who appeared in a crosswalk ahead of him, seemingly out of nowhere.

It was then Lewis realized his deteriorating eyesight would soon end his days behind the wheel. Now 53 and legally blind, the prospect of fully autonomous vehicles gives him hope of returning to the road on his own.

"If it's designed correctly, if the vehicles are accessible," said Lewis, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, which works to develop technologies and services that help the blind. "It's going to create an improved ability to travel that doesn't currently exist."

The revolution in self-driving cars holds promise for a segment of the population that thought they'd never be able to operate a vehicle: the blind. Advocates for the estimated 1.3 million legally blind people in the U.S., and millions more with other disabilities, have joined automakers and technology companies in lobbying Congress to help spur the rollout of self-driving vehicles.

A panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted unanimously last week to advance the first legislation on driverless cars. Advocates for the blind have let lawmakers know they have a special set of concerns: They want accessibility incorporated into car design, and for states to steer clear of laws that would prohibit the blind from one day sitting in the driver's seat.

They're up against a regulatory and industry paradigm that assumes drivers see the road ahead. Policymakers and companies working on fully self-driving vehicles -- still many years away from being widely available -- are only beginning to tackle new challenges to ensure that the blind can benefit, and some roadblocks are already emerging.

Alex Epstein, senior director of digital strategy at the National Safety Council, said autonomous vehicle technology still has a long way to go until vehicles don't have a steering wheel or brake and the driver can be removed from the equation.

"In theory, the concept is a wonderful idea," Epstein said. "The question is how does the auto industry and the tech industry get to that place."

The National Federation of the Blind has begun airing radio ads as part of a new coalition representing the hearing-impaired, the elderly, carmakers and Securing America's Future Energy, an energy-independence advocate. It has also joined the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, an advocacy group that represents Ford Motor Co., Volvo Cars AB, Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo unit, Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc.

The auto and tech industry's vision of robotaxi fleets could improve access to employment and education that have long been among the blind federation's top policy priorities, said spokesman Chris Danielsen. The group is concerned about state policies that could limit blind people's access to autonomous rides in the future.

Florida, Michigan and New York already have laws that require operators of automated vehicles to have a driver's license, which mandates a vision test. What's more, even states lacking statutes with such requirements would likely defer to current law, creating a de facto driver's license requirement, according to Amanda Essex, transportation policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"That obviously freezes us out," said Danielsen. "Certain policymakers will say that even though it's a self-driving car, I don't want a blind person behind the wheel because I don't believe that that's safe."

Requiring that passengers in an autonomous vehicle that needs no human intervention have a driver's license is a "needless restriction" that would blunt the effect of the technology on the disabled community, Securing America's Future Energy said in a recent study commissioned along with the Ruderman Family Foundation, an advocacy group for the disabled.

The energy group has lobbied aggressively to advance autonomous vehicles. Its study found that improved access to transportation from fully autonomous vehicles would save $19 billion in health care costs from missed doctor's appointments and help improve job prospects for some 2 million disabled people.

The House bill would leave states in charge of their traditional areas such as vehicle registration, insurance and licensing, but says the federal government is the only entity that can set safety standards for autonomous vehicles. The draft dropped a provision from an earlier proposal that sought to promote access to autonomous vehicles for the disabled.

Advocates did win other provisions though, including the creation of an advisory committee within the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to examine disabled access.

Self-driving vehicles that don't require intervention by a human driver will present new policy challenges at the state level that must be addressed to ensure the blind and disabled can take full advantage of the technology, according to David Strickland, counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets and a former chief of the safety agency.

"We're going to be moving from a model where people are drivers to a model to where people are going to be passengers," he said. "You're going to end up segregating them from the use of that technology unless you amend the licensure laws."

It's a similar situation for automakers, which generally haven't had to consider access for groups such as the blind or people with other disabilities, such as paralysis. Accessible vehicles are largely built by specialty retrofitters. And it's up to government transit authorities and taxi operators to ensure trains, taxis and other modes of transportation can be used by people with disabilities.

"When you're talking about the narrow aspects of paratransit, you've really never had to think about human-machine interface on a broad scale for the disabled," said Strickland, who spoke at the National Federation of the Blind's national convention earlier this month. Automakers will now have to "tackle the question on a broad consumer scale."

Some of the companies developing driverless cars -- such as General Motors Co. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. -- have already begun to tackle that.

In 2015, Steve Mahan, from the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, traveled around Austin, Texas, by himself in a Google car without a steering wheel or floor pedals, according to an announcement last year by the Alphabet initiative, now known as Waymo.

Blind GM employees are advising company designers working on autonomous vehicles to make them accessible, and one focus has been on the use of smartphone apps tailored for blind users, according to Renee Arrington-Johnson, an industrial engineer with GM for 40 years who led the effort until she retired this month.

Other technologies are still in the research stage.

"This is a big market that you will have open to you, and this is independence for people who are now depending on public transportation or on taxis," Arrington-Johnson, who is legally blind, said, describing how she pitched senior GM executives on the idea. "In the past you didn't really necessarily market to a person who was blind or low vision because that really wasn't your big market."

She said most of the changes need to occur in the way information is communicated to blind users. Just like sighted people, blind people want to know where they are and about the surrounding environment upon exiting the car.

The National Federation of the Blind discussed the blind community's needs for an autonomous car at Daimler AG's annual Sustainability Forum last year. Any company that finds out how to tap this market "will be the winners in this game," Lewis said.

"I've always said the hardest thing for me when I went blind was giving up my driver's license," he said. "It was a symbol of my independence."

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