Self Driving Cars and the Impact on the Visually Impaired

Most people witness technological advances with eagerness and curiosity. Others depend on themselves to have an easier life.

If you’ve ever been in the latter situation, you can imagine what the news about self-driving cars means to the visually impaired community.

This only proves that driverless vehicles have not been designed only for the sake of tech innovation.

Rather, they respond to practical needs such as:

  • increase in fuel efficiency
  • improved traffic flow
  • carbon emissions reduction
  • decrease of human error-caused accidents

Now, you can add increased opportunities for the visually impaired as well.

But how will these conveniences materialize? Read on to find out.

Testing Self-Driving Cars with Visually Impaired Passengers

Self-driving cars aficionados may remember October 2015. This is the date when the first blind passenger used a driverless vehicle independently.

By then, Steve Mahan had already experienced the blessings of driverless technology. This time, however, he was allowed to navigate the streets of Austin with no assistance from another passenger.

The Google Waymo vehicle had been attentively inspected and equipped with a whole system in the backseat before Steve got onboard.

After undergoing such an experience, Mahan assessed it as being “like driving with a very good driver“. He also voiced his wish that people in his situation will be among independent vehicle users someday.

In this respect, some steps have already been made with initiatives like the Blind Driver Challenge. Launched by the National Federation of the Blind in 2004, it is a platform which encourages innovation in non-visual driving interface development. 

With these already existing efforts, MIT startup Optimus Ride conducted a drive-test at the Perkins School for the Blind.

The students and staff were able to test a driverless prototype around the 38-acre school property. Perkins CEO Dave Power claims there is great enthusiasm for autonomous cars to adjust to visually impaired users.

But how exactly will these be carried out?

Designing Vehicles to Be Disability Friendly

Most people would be tempted to consider the blind need a special kind of vehicle to enjoy transportation independence. But why not use what we already have?

In fact, software engineers are focusing on tests and features which respond to blind passengers’ needs.

As the event at Perkins demonstrated, automakers only need more feedback to incorporate adjustments.

This is why Power is trying to turn the Perkins campus into a testing ground for more and more automakers.

They could gather feedback from blind passengers and, thus, expand their user base.

At Perkins, Optimus Ride were able to get useful suggestions regarding:

  • design of extra floor space for service dogs;
  • nonvisual interface for communication with the car;
  • integration of voice technology;
  • instruction-based use of the car;

All these features could be implemented with gesture-based technologies which replicate screen readers.


In fact, Uber is already upping the game in terms of accessibility for the blind. Here are just some features:

  • iOS VoiceOver technology
  • Real-time GPS
  • On-demand transportation

Towards an Inclusive Future

Advocates for the blind community don’t have in mind app development only. They will also push for adopting regulations concerning self-driving cars.

Legal challenges are addressed by the ACB – American Council of the Blind. They are tracking the laws to make sure there are no legal impediments for blind people to use self-driving vehicles.

In addition, the NFB is attending a conference hosted by German automaker Daimler. There, they will advance any comments regarding the recently issued guidelines for driverless vehicles.

What the visually impaired people are seeking for is a time when they will be given the right tools to gain their independence. Including transportation autonomy.

Representatives like the NFB or ACB are intent on militating for accessibility. Of course, there are transportation services and solutions for individuals with special needs. But they still involve another person to supervise the transportation. Which leaves blind users with semi-autonomous solutions to choose from.

So, if we are to automate most of our daily operations, why not direct these efforts towards ensuring full autonomy for the visually impaired?

After all, every community is going to benefit from such a mobility-oriented future. 

Want to know more on this topic? Stay tuned for more blog posts. 

Philipp Kandal