On Jan. 29, 2011, I was honored to represent the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) by independently driving a modified Ford Escape hybrid on a section of the Daytona International Speedway. I navigated the course’s turns, avoided obstacles that were deliberately placed in my path, and passed another moving vehicle without incident.

Responding to the NFB Blind Driver Challenge, a team at Virginia Tech had worked with us to equip the vehicle with cameras, lidar sensors and GPS. Information from this technology was then passed to a computer, which converted the information into haptic feedback that I could sense through my driving gloves and a modified seat cushion, providing instructions for steering the vehicle and controlling its speed. In other words, I was able to drive independently because the information that usually comes from visually observing road conditions was conveyed to me nonvisually through advanced technology. 

The purpose of the demonstration was to show that driving isn’t really a matter of having sight but of having information. Our team operated under the assumption that if relevant information could be conveyed to a blind driver in real time, then that driver could safely and independently drive. We were demonstrating not just the power of modern technology, but the capacity of blind people to do any task, even those that are generally thought to be exclusively reserved for those with eyesight. We showed that the blind wouldn’t necessarily need a completely autonomous vehicle to drive, as long as we could nonvisually acquire the information available to other drivers. I did not accelerate the vehicle to the speeds driven on America’s highways, and certainly not to the speeds normally achieved on the track at Daytona. My top speed was around 25 or 30 mph. Nonetheless, we made our point: blind people driving cars was achievable, even if the idea of completely autonomous vehicles never came to fruition.

Ten years later, the prospect of autonomous vehicles (AVs) that require no human operation is much closer to reality. AVs have many potential benefits to society, ranging from fewer road fatalities to better fuel economy. Blind people like me, however, have particular reason to be enthusiastic about them. AVs have the potential to enhance our independence by providing reliable transportation that we can access whenever we need it, just as other Americans are able to do. This would dramatically improve our independence, productivity, economic success and community engagement. It is important to recognize, however, that none of these benefits will be realized without a clear and forward-thinking approach to the AV issue at the federal level, which includes ensuring full and equal access for everyone.

To ensure equal access, two principles must be a part of any federal legislation promoting autonomous vehicles, only one of which has to do with the design of AV technology. The first is protecting the blind and other people with disabilities from discrimination in the licensure process; in other words, eyesight must not be a requirement for a license to operate an autonomous vehicle. The second item is a set of requirements related to nonvisual accessibility of user interfaces and vehicle design. Without these two principles working in tandem, we could find ourselves in one of two ironic scenarios. In the first, the blind could have unfettered access to AV’s via non-discriminatory licensing practices, but then could be unable to operate the vehicles due to inaccessible user interfaces. In the second, AVs could be designed and manufactured ideally in terms of accessibility, but many blind people would be unable to enjoy the fruits of such innovation due to discriminatory licensing requirements.

The National Federation of the Blind, of which I now serve as president, supports the responsible production and deployment of autonomous vehicles that are safe, reliable and fully accessible, along with nondiscriminatory public policies that make these vehicles equally available to the blind and others with disabilities or other characteristics that prevent them from operating traditional vehicles. Early and consistent guidance from policymakers as these technologies are developed, tested and deployed, and as states and territories craft legislation and regulations supporting their operation, is critical to realizing the promise autonomous vehicles hold for all Americans. We therefore urge legislators at the federal, state and local level to craft laws and regulations that transform these dreamed-of benefits into reality. 

The NFB has expertise in the development of accessible user interfaces, and we are working actively with the automotive industry to ensure that new vehicle technology will benefit everyone. We are a member of the PAVE Coalition, and we plan to engage in other partnerships to advance this important work. In the meantime, we also plan to show the public what blind people can achieve, just as we did at Daytona 10 years ago. This fall, Dan Parker, a blind automotive engineer, will attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the “Fastest Speed for a Car Driven Blindfolded.” Parker plans to go much faster than I did, exceeding 200 mph. 

You can learn more about our past success and future endeavors in this area by visiting www.blinddriverchallenge.org. My fellow blind Americans and I hope to see you on the road in the not-too-distant future.

Riccobono is president of the National Federation of the Blind.

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