Driving with your eyes closed

I lost my sight when I was 26. Adjusting to life without sight wasn’t easy. In the end, my husband Mike and I decided to move somewhere I wouldn’t need a car to get around. Now we live in a neighborhood in Chicago so close to downtown that I can walk or take a train or bus just about anywhere I want to go. Parking costs a lot here, so a lot of my neighbors who can see don’t have cars, either.

Fact is, even when I could see, I was a bad driver. I miss my bicycle more than I miss having a car. I’m in the minority, though—when I talk with others who have visual impairments, especially ones who live in the suburbs, driving is #1 on their “Things I Miss” list.

So I’m glad Google is thinking of people who are blind or have other disabilities while they work on their Google self-directing vehicle project. A post called “Just press go: designing a self-driving vehicle” that was published on the Official Google blog last week links to a YouTube video of people test-driving the prototype, and I think one of the test-drivers has a disability. Without being able to see the video, I can’t be absolutely sure of that. I heard him praising the self-directed vehicle for how it’d give him back some of the things that had been taken away from him, though, and that’s why I’m guessing he became disabled somehow.

I couldn’t find any options on last week’s video to add special narration to help me understand what was happening on the screen, so guess where I turned to try and figure it out? I Googled!

Turns out a man who is blind already test-drove a prototype back in March. (Maybe that’s the guy in last week’s video, too?) Months ago Google asked Steve Mahan, the head of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center in California, to take the wheel. The video of his test ride was posted on Google+ back then, and that video comes with special audio captions so I could understand exactly what was going on.

Steve Mahan makes the journey without having to touch the wheel or pedals. An array of video, radar and laser sensors constantly scan the road for him. Passengers told him when they’d stopped at a stop sign, and Mahan’s gleeful exclamations showed how much he was enjoying the ride.

That March video focused on Steve Mahan, so he had a lot of time to talk. He said self-driving cars could make a huge difference to the lives of people with disabilities.  “There are some places you cannot go, some things that you really cannot do,” he said. “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 do those things.”

So like I say, I appreciate the attention Google is giving to people with disabilities when working on the car that drives itself, and hey, the technology is wayyyyyyy cool! I’m just disappointed they don’t use the cool narration technology they already have and add audio captions to all their videos. Those of us with disabilities like to do whatever we can independently. It’s obvious that Steve Mahan enjoyed driving without asking a friend for help. I enjoy doing my job here at Easter Seals without needing assistance from others, too. I could have asked a sighted colleague to describe the people in that Just Press Go video, but as long as the audio caption technology exists, then I don’t have to. I wish more video producers would offer that option.

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  1. Angela Says:

    I am “legally blind’ in one eye due to a scarred retina that is really due to a medical condition when I was born almost 3 decades ago in 1984, and I am VERY Fortunate and grateful that God did NOT bless MOI (Me , in French) with the Ability to drive (except for go – carts when I would go down to Wild Wood on summer vacation(s) in the past with my WONDERFUL family when I was little growing up North in Essex County in West Orange as a Born – Again Christian girl (and NOW Into a BEAUTIFUL /Confident , Deeply Spiritual Woman.)