Friday, July 09, 2010

What About Cars for Seeing Eye Dogs?

This week, the National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech demonstrated a prototype vehicle equipped with technology to allow a blind person to operate a car independently. The technology, called "nonvisual interfaces," uses sensors to let a blind driver maneuver a car based on information transmitted to him about his surroundings: whether another car or object is nearby, in front of him or in a neighboring lane.

My first reaction was frankly, skeptical. With all respect, there are already too many seemingly blind people driving in San Francisco. But it's an intriguing idea. Louis Braille opened worlds to the blind in the early 1800's because he desperately wanted to read. The arrangement of raised dots he invented has been adapted to nearly every language on earth. Perhaps no disability is as limiting as we generally assume.

Advocates for the blind consider the invention of such a vehicle a "moon shot." President Kennedy, who urged America to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth, would surely agree. He said, "We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask 'why not?'..."

Licenses requiring eyeglasses could become obsolete. And the words, "Waddya, blind?" so beloved of New Yorkers, could lose their impact along with brandishing middle fingers at other drivers who can't see them. Big changes, people. Big changes coming.

17 comments:

secret agent woman said...

I don't know - I like the idea of it and yet it also scares me. But actually, not as much as people who text wile driving scare me.

meno said...

I just can't picture it! :)

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Agent,

It sounds like a game of bumper cars to me, but without the padding. And what happens if the non-visual signals fail and Toyota has to recall the vehicles because too many people died?

Meno,

Political correctness carried to a ridiculous degree? On the other hand, with so many truly dreadful sighted drivers, maybe it won't make any difference.

nick said...

I don't see how an automated car could transmit all the hundreds of bits of information that sighted drivers are aware of, nor how the blind driver would be able to process all this information and react to it sufficiently quickly. But who can tell, technological ingenuity knows no bounds. It would certainly be a great step forward if it can be done.

Molly said...

Whaddya, unadventurous? We have the aged and infirm down here, stubbornly clinging to their licenses long after they should gracefully admit that they're a hazard to themselves and everyone else on the road! You can carry this PC stuff to extremes you know! Should I now feel ashamed of myself next time I mutter about the driver in front of me being blind in one eye, can't see out of the other?!

mrwriteon said...

Just too bad Ray Charles didn't hang on for a few years longer.

But, seriously, there are many things in this world that need fixing, but is enabling the sightless to drive one of them? Isn't there already enough road-rage out there? "Herbert, there's no point; he can't see your extended finger!'

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Nick,

Exactly. I completely agree with you. I think a blind person would be safer rappelling a mountain on a rope than driving in traffic.

Molly,

It's kind of like a rousing game of Blind Man's Bluff. In traffic. Yeah, good times.

It must be very hard for those people who hatched this plan to function without a brain, though.

Ian,

I can think of a million other reasons for Ray Charles to have hung on longer.

You know, most of the sighted drivers are unskilled and scary. Do we really need to prove that blindness is not limiting by turning the UNsighted loose on the roads?

Jo said...

I don't own a car, so I don't drive. But I am a pedestrian. I have come thisclose to being hit -- many, many, many times by drivers who can see me. I can't even imagine what a crazy world it will be with drivers who can't see me. I may just have to give up walking and buy a car, and we can all play bumper cars.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Jo,

I have nearly been hit so often crossing streets that I've wondered if I were invisible. I think it's lunacy to let blind people drive cars. There are simply too many sensory impressions that must be recognized and acted upon quickly for them or anyone else to be safe.

The Fool said...

It's all a scam by BP to increase their market of dependents. :)

Brown said...

Enjoyable to muse and imagine no doubt, but until our driving environment catches up with our technology in order to safely sustain this concept, I think the idea should continue to be explored merely for improving more practical purposes for the blind community.

Bruce said...

When I was younger and we visited my grandfather on Cape Cod, there were a lot of oldsters in their eighties and up who piloted huge land yachts all over the neighborhood, narrowly missing kids, dogs and mailboxes.

It seems to me that the sight requirement may often be a handy excuse for taking the licenses of people who are losing the reflexes and acuity necessary to drive. If the blind people car comes to pass, I have to wonder (and worry) about how we will be able to get people to surrender their licenses when the time comes.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

John,

Even if they have to kill off the ecology to do so.

Brown,

Any improvements for the blind would be wonderful, but driving cars? Probably not the best plan.

Bruce,

Very good point. I've tried to open my mind to this but think it's absurd.

I'm glad you managed to escape a horrible demise at a young age. Many elderly drivers are a menace and should not be allowed behind the wheel.

TechnoBabe said...

I just cannot imagine a blind person driving a vehicle. I truly hope cars eventually have more intelligence than drivers, that is the only way we will all be on the road together.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Babe,

We really do need vehicles that are smarter than we are. There are entirely too many drivers on the road, which leaves no margin of error.

Jocelyn said...

I'm with you: skeptical. Technology ALWAYS fails. It is ALWAYS proven that human ability needs to be a ready back-up. Hmmmm.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Jocelyn,

Bottom line: Most sighted drivers are such a menace, why would anyone want to add blindness to the mix? On the other hand, they're all so bad anyway, how much worse could it be?

With all respect for the disabled, it seems a lame and scary way to make a statement about ability.