University of Florida study seeks to ensure autonomous cars meet needs of the blind

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A University of Florida researcher named Julian Brinkley has developed a program called “Atlas” to figure out the specific needs blind people have using self-driving cars, and using his software to solve problems.

​Brinkley uses data he collects from users and others through collaboration with the Florida Center for the Blind in Ocala, Florida.

“If I’m a visually impaired person and I don’t have the ability to verify visually that I’m at the appropriate location, how do I know that it’s not dropping me off in a field somewhere?” Brinkley says via the Gainesville Sun.

“In the case of autonomous cars, hopefully accessibility will be moved to the forefront by some of the research.”

Brinkley does not have access to a self-driving vehicle, so he uses a process developed by Stanford University researchers in a “specially configured conventional vehicle.”

Participants in the study interact with vehicle-control software in what appears to be a self-driving vehicle (participants don’t know that there is a human driver at the controls of the vehicle). The driver— hidden behind a partition—uses instructions from the software to drive to the right place.

In a recent test in Central Florida, a passenger named Sharon Van Etten climbed into the backseat of an SUV, and began speaking to a computer screen in front of her. After the computer’s voice asked her where she wanted to go, Van Etten, who is legally blind, said Kmart.

The driver drove Van Etten to the store, and along the way, the computer’s voice told her the landmarks that they were passing during the drive. Upon reaching her destination, the voice told Van Etten which side to exit from and mentioned some of the obstacles she’d face between the car and the store entrance.

National advocates for legally blind people in the U.S. are concerned that the autonomous vehicle industry is not taking into account the needs of the blind when designing this new technology, which could potentially make these vehicles more expensive and harder for them to access.

The needs of disabled people are being discussed though, according to autonomous-car industry analysts, as designers figure out how users will interface with the cars, but there are many things to consider during this process.

“They’re trying to figure out what way to interface with these vehicles for riders, and to build a sense of trust about what the vehicles are doing,” says Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst with Navigant Research in Detroit. “But right now, I don’t know if anyone has all the answers.”

In the meantime, people like Cinzhasha Farmer, who also participated in the Atlas program, are hopeful that this technology will one day reach a point where she will be able to get around on her own without relying on others.

“It’s one of my goals, and I don’t know how I’ll ever accomplish it — but that car may do it,” Farmer says.

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