Autonomous driving – Mobility for everyone or wasted potential?
Autonomous driving – Mobility for everyone or wasted potential?
In the 80s, David Hasselhoff saved the world each week. Yet he didn’t play the starring role in Knight Rider, it was actually his car KITT. Much of what was fiction back then is now a reality. We have navigation devices that talk to us, automatic lane keeping assist systems, adaptive cruise control, and cars that can park without our help. How long until we might simply be a passenger in our own car and just get in, name the destination and arrive safely without laying our hands on the wheel? And what options in terms of mobility does autonomous driving offer people with disabilities?
Traffic jams, stop and go driving and a lot of frustration if you just want to get home quickly. This is how the rush hour traffic looks like in most cities. How pleasant would it be if you could read the newspaper instead?
In April, Lydia Zoubek learned that this subject is also interesting for people with disabilities. In her blog "Lydias Welt" (English: Lydia’s World), she wrote about driving training with a Smart car prototype that was modified for blind drivers. Her story was published on April 1 and was actually meant as a joke. Yet it had a huge impact. "The whole idea for the blog entry came to me while I was joking around with a friend. One thing led to another and we ultimately thought, this would be a great topic for April Fools’ Day," the blogger explains the story’s origin. "And suddenly my friend is at my front door on March 31 with a camera tripod and this Smart car that can also be seen in the pictures." The feedback was amazing. "Many readers realized that this was simply an April Fools prank, but some actually didn‘t. Some readers also criticized that I was toying with the hopes and dreams of blind people. Unfortunately, I also had an inquiry from a father, who wanted to enable his disabled daughter to get her driver’s license. How do you respond to that? I was actually speechless," says Zoubek, who had to dash the hopes of the father with a heavy heart. The developments are not quite there yet and there are still several problems that have to be solved before autonomous driving becomes a possibility. It is still in its infancy.
In mid-May of this year, the German Parliament passed a bill that permits self-driving cars on German roads. However, the bill states that a person has to be present and "ready to take over at a moment’s notice" and take appropriate action if needed. Nevertheless, the bill cleared the way for manufacturers to push ahead with technologies in this area. For example, Berlin is currently feverishly working on setting up a sophisticated test track along the Straße des 17. Juni. If you ever had to drive a car in Berlin, you know that this is the quintessential endurance test. Come 2018, autonomous vehicles can also drive a test track on Autobahn 2 and 7 between Salzgitter, Braunschweig, and Hanover, in much the same way cars have been able to use a test track along the A9 in Bavaria since 2015.
The automotive industry has pushed for an adaptation of the legal requirements for quite some time. Having said that, how do manufacturers actually envision autonomous driving or the future of driving? "We primarily picture driving with an autonomous vehicle to be more comfortable but also safer. Drivers are relieved from the burden of monotonous driving in traffic jams or on the freeway. What’s more, this also gives elderly people and people with disabilities the chance to remain or become mobile," says Bernhard Weidemann, Spokesperson Autonomous Driving at Daimler AG. "Until now, cars were designed around the driver’s task of driving. Once this is no longer necessary, it opens up a number of new degrees of freedom."
When it comes to Daimler, the autonomous car of the future looks like this. In the research vehicle F 015, for example, it is possible to turn the front seats backwards in order to be able to communicate with the passengers.
Autonomous driving – an opportunity for more mobility for everyone?
No question about it, autonomous driving would mark the beginning of a new automobile age. Although we are still a long way away from it, we wonder what the various organizations that represent people with disabilities in Germany think about this subject. "The German Association for the Hearing Impaired (DSB) general wants people with hearing impairments to share in all innovations the same way people without disabilities are participating. We see no reason why this shouldn’t also be possible in the case of autonomous driving," says Norbert Böttges, Vice President of the DSB. Generally, deaf or hearing impaired persons in Germany can apply for a driver’s license without stipulation. They simply have to submit a medical certificate stating that there are no other restrictions preventing traffic participation.
As Lydia Zoubek found out, this subject would be a big dream come true, especially for blind or visually impaired persons in Germany. The Managing Director of the German Association for Blind and Visually Impaired People (DBSV), Andreas Bethken, explains, "Autonomous driving is not yet relevant in everyday life, but it is an exciting aspect for those of us, who are blind and visually impaired." Meanwhile, the Vice President of the German Federation of Car Owners with Disabilities (Bund behinderter Auto-Besitzer, BbAB) Achim Neunzling, is putting the brakes on all this excitement on behalf of his organization. "Despite all the euphoria about autonomous driving that’s being touted by the automotive industry, the BbAB is very doubtful about the vision. When it comes to rail-bound systems like railroad traffic, nobody currently wants to eliminate train drivers and allow computer-controlled trains to operate without a driver. And yet it would be far easier than driving on crowded roads involving countless situations that no technical brain is able to logically assess in an emergency."
Needless to say, there have also been many improvements over the past few years for people with disabilities in terms of mobility when using their own car. Today, there are more than 70 companies in Germany that adapt vehicles to meet the individual needs of people with disabilities. This has increased their level of independence. "Some automotive manufacturers are very open-minded about collaborating with car modification shops by placing important technical and electronic data at their disposal," Neunzling offers praise. People with disabilities understandably also don’t want to give up systems that increase their driving comfort and safety. The automotive industry also solves the occasional problem without the help of car modification specialists. Norbert Böttges adds that rear-view cameras are a great improvement over mere audible warning signals for hearing impaired or deaf people.
Blind and visually impaired persons, who are presently relegated to being passengers, are definitely concerned that they will yet again be overlooked when it comes to autonomous driving. Andreas Bethke notes, "Many times we saw that potential was being wasted, simply because nobody considered us in the equation. This is why we ask the manufacturers and policymakers to include us in this matter right from the start."
To ensure that manufacturers don’t ignore this particular group of people, the Perkins School for the Blind in the U.S. makes its campus available for prototype testing and gives manufacturers input on ways to improve usability for everyone. Also located in the U.S., the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) issued the Blind Driver Challenge, which calls on developers and visionaries to design interface technologies that enable blind people to independently drive a car.
Thanks to many technically possible conversions, people with disabilities can nowadays drive cars and are therefore mobile. Visually impaired or blind people are always dependent on the help of others. Autonomous driving would be an opportunity to achieve mobility for everyone.
Technical difficulties and lots of skepticism
Before vehicles can drive autonomously, it must be (nearly) guaranteed that a person can rely on his/her car with at least 99.8 percent certainty. But this is still a long way away in terms of technology, which is something Bernhard Weidemann can also attest to. "Extreme weather conditions like snow and heavy rain are still a challenge that technology needs to overcome. But we are working on it." There is a reason why the industry sector does a lot of its testing in California or Nevada. Those are regions that are not exactly known for extreme weather events. There are also some issues with the sensors that still have to be ironed out. "Oddly enough, traffic lights are a real problem for example. Obviously, they must not be falsely interpreted. However, it can get very difficult at major, complex intersections to identify the right traffic light pertaining to the respective car if there are many other traffic signals around. You have to be able to see the traffic light and the arrows, which can add up to just a few pixels from a distance. Frequently, there is backlighting, which presently has us approaching the outer limits of current sensor performance." This is also why it is crucial that drivers must always be able to intervene. Right now, the many technological aids only relieve drivers of a few "tedious" tasks.
Aside from the technical implementation of autonomous driving, there is a slew of other concerns. In an Emnid survey, the Bertelsmann Foundation discovered that two-thirds of respondents actually don’t trust the abilities of a potential autonomous car. Meanwhile, a survey conducted by TÜV Rheinland arrived at a different conclusion: young drivers and people that drive a lot widely accept this technological progress. The BbAB, which questioned ten car owners about their use of the automatic parking assist feature, came to a similar conclusion as the Bertelsmann Foundation. It "revealed that none of the drivers use the hands-free parking feature on public roads. The fear that the electronic system might miscalculate and cause (expensive) damage to their own or other nearby vehicles apparently outweighs the benefit of convenience." Daimler is also aware of this problem and states, "The acceptance in society is going to be a challenge that needs to be overcome because it plays a crucial role in the success of autonomous cars. Hopefully, people will recognize our evolutionary approach and increasingly accept these features as a result."
But it will take many years until this is the case. And perhaps the dream of owning a KITT or having a completely self-driving "chauffeur" that allows you to take care of other things instead of keeping your eyes on the road, might never come true.
At any rate, Lydia Zoubek doubts that she will get to experience autonomous cars or blind people behind the wheel and has actually learned "to think outside the car". That being said, she will soon also own a car. "I made a deal with my daughter, who just turned 18, promising to buy her a car when she passes her driving test. In return, she will occasionally help me to run errands. It will definitely improve my quality of life if I can finally go shopping at a large supermarket."