As Congress churns through September, an exciting technological development sits just on the legislative horizon, where science fiction from a half-century ago stands within reach of our reality and substantial life-saving technology is poised to take to our streets.
I’m speaking of course to the rise of autonomous vehicles and the current opportunity the Senate has to pass the AV START Act (S. 2559), which will make advancements toward AVs becoming more accessible for millions of Americans who currently don’t have access to affordable and reliable transportation due to disabilities like blindness.
While recent legislative activity makes AV development seem new to the scene, autonomous vehicles have been riding our roads for many years. In 2011, renowned robotics professor Sebastian Thrun set forth a vision on a TED Talk for autonomous vehicles, and a year later on YouTube, Google made a big splash with their first driverless vehicle transporting a passenger who was blind. Since then, the American Council of the Blind has been engaged with technology developers and auto manufacturers, recognizing the transformative potential within these vehicles.
For the first time, people who are blind will be able to move freely over great distance without the assistance of other sighted individuals. However, this is not the only significant benefit that stands to be gained. In mapping out his vision, Thrun stressed the huge potential AVs have toward significantly reducing fatalities at the hands of distracted drivers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94 percent of vehicle-related deaths are the result of human error. Earlier this year, the Governor’s Highway Safety Association reported a 27 percent increase over the past decade in accidents with pedestrians, in addition to the highest rate of fatalities and injuries in over 25 years.
Distracted drivers are a major concern among travelers who are blind and visually impaired. I remember well that feeling thirty years ago, when I went blind, taking that first step off the curb into traffic. Even knowing my mobility instructor was watching over my shoulder, it felt very much like a leap of faith. Since then, I’ve been hit three times by moving vehicles; the last time my guide dog and I were thrown across a lane of traffic onto the curb. Amazingly, nothing was broken – a grim reality to how a desire to be an independent person who is blind comes with certain risks.
Knowing well the risks pedestrians face each day, I’m extremely encouraged by the level of commitment that both researchers and industry have given toward envisioning a world with zero vehicle related fatalities. NHTSA estimates that over 37,000 people died as the result of car crashes in 2016 alone. Safe and secure technology that remains constantly alert while operating vehicles gives me a much greater level of trust over texting teens who just went through an emotional break-up.
The AV START Act will not only provide protections under the ADA for people who wish to operate autonomous vehicles, but it will call for NHTSA to establish a working group that will bring industry and consumers like ACB around the table, where experts can best decide how deployment should unfold over the next decade and beyond. But we are not going to get to that point unless Congress pushes START for the AV START Act and let industry, regulators, and advocates come to the table to map out a future of independence and security on our streets.
Anthony Stephens is the director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind.
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