Some years ago I saw a televised comedy bit where Eddie Murphy, pretending he was driving a car with blind singer Stevie Wonder seated next to him, quips: “Yeah, I know you’re a musical genius and all that, but if you really want to impress me, take the wheel.”
Well, as funny as that was at the time, it appears some people are actually entertaining the notion that blind people should be driving. The Associated Press reports that “The National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech plan to demonstrate a prototype vehicle next year equipped with technology that helps a blind person drive 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.”
It seems that the sensor approach is the key behind this technology, with AP noting that Virginia Tech first created a vehicle as part of a feasibility study that used sensor lasers and cameras to act as the eyes of the vehicle. A vibrating vest was used to direct the driver to speed up, slow down or make turns.
The latest vehicle uses gloves with vibrating motors on areas that cover the knuckles. The vibrations signal to the driver when and where to turn, says AP. Another interface is a tablet about half the size of a sheet of paper with multiple air holes, almost like those found on an air hockey game. “Compressed air coming out of the device helps inform the driver of his or her surroundings, essentially creating a map of the objects around a vehicle. It would show whether there's another vehicle in a nearby lane or an obstruction in the road.”
Advocates are happy that these efforts confirm the possibility that a blind person could drive a vehicle, but that possibility has already been demonstrated. The television show Mythbusters featured an episode on which a blind man drove a car in a deserted residential neighborhood guided only by verbal cues from the show’s hosts. It is worth noting, however, that the car was driven at moderate speeds on local streets without traffic, and that the experiment did not include any of the actual emergencies that might pop up during a typical drive.
The question here is not whether or not this is feasible, but whether or not it is a good idea. If a blind individual is motoring along a busy highway at 65 mph and a plastic bag blows across the car’s path, the sensors may tell him that “something” is there, but unless he knows what the something is, he cannot make the appropriate response. Is it a windblown white “Thank You” bag or a little girl chasing a ball? Assuming the worst case, the driver jams on the brakes and swerves, probably causing a mutli-car pileup and possibly resulting in injuries and even death for himself and many other drivers. Even if someone or something could verbally cue the driver (“It’s just a plastic bag!”) it is doubtful that information could be transmitted to the driver or processed quickly enough by his brain for him to make the correct response and ignore the hazard.
I have no quarrel with the many technological advances that enable the blind to do more in our world and to be more independent. In fact, I like the idea that we are using technology to make life better for many groups. Like anything else, however, our enthusiasm has to be tempered with practicality. As with the idea of drivers having Internet access while behind the wheel, which I wrote about last time, we have to realize that neither can happen without jeopardizing the safety of others. Both would be an insurance nightmare.
So, what is possible is not always advisable. Is it possible that a blind person could successfully drive a vehicle in normal conditions with the proper cues? Yes, certainly. It is also possible, however, that a six-year-old could perform surgery with the proper cues, but would we trust our lives to a scalpel-wielding first-grader? (Think about the electronic game Operation for a preview of the results).
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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