Will self-driving cars be a boon or bane for people with vision impairment?

Debbie Ryan of St. John’s hasn’t had a driver’s licence in 25 years, since her eyesight deteriorated.

Debbie Ryan says people are concerned about how self-driving cars will function in rural communities where there may not be a sidewalk. (CNIB)

Now the new technology of autonomous or self-driving cars is promising Ryan and those like her the chance at being more independent and self-reliant.

“I think it’s very exciting, having the ability to get in a vehicle and go where you want, when you want,” said Ryan, a member of the local Canadian Institute for the Blind executive.

“It is certainly going to have an amazing impact on people with vision loss.”

Or will it?

The technology won’t be a part of everyday life for a long time yet, but the CNIB says it is the perfect time to talk about how self-driving cars will adapt to people who have vision impairment.

New study underway

That is the purpose of a project underway wth the CNIB and Transportation Safety Board of Canada, says Lui Greco, a manager with CNIB.

“This is a good time at the beginning, when they’re designing the technology, when they’re building it, to make sure that accessibility for people with sight loss and other disabilities are part of the design phase,” Greco said.

“Not waiting until after it’s been built and then say, ‘Oh, we got it wrong, we have to change it.’ That’s always a very difficult and expensive proposition.”

Not everyone acts in the same way when approaching an intersection.– Lui Greco

Self-driving cars have already been developed.

In Toronto, Uber brought their experimental cars back to the road in December to collect mapping data. New safety requirements now mandate there have to be two people in the vehicle when it’s operating — one of them behind the wheel.

Last March, a woman was struck and killed by an Uber self-driving vehicle in Arizona.

Greco said there is still a long way to go for this technology.

Uber’s self-driving cars returned to Toronto streets in December, after new safety measures required two people to be in its self-driving vehicles at all times — both behind the wheel and in the passenger seat. (Uber/Handout)

“Industry, government, policy makers, manufacturers, developers — no one really knows what this stuff is going to look like,” he told CBC’s Newfoundland Morning.

“This is an opportunity for us to have conversations with all of the relevant stakeholders and say, ‘Hey, don’t forget that not everyone acts in the same way when approaching an intersection.'”

What about no sidewalks?

Right now that only really works for communities large enough to have traffic lights, said Ryan. There are a lot of people concerned about how they would work in rural communities.

“Most of them don’t have sidewalks, so the concern is, ‘OK, where do I go?'” said Ryan.

“How will these vehicles function? I would assume that there are going to be sensors that would identify or tell the vehicle that there is somebody in close proximity to them, but then the concern would be, what happens if those sensors aren’t working?”

Greco said there are already apps for smart phones that allow people with vision impairment to communicate with technology at intersection lights. He said maybe there’s a similar algorithm that can be developed to allow a similar interaction with autonomous vehicles.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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