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Autonomous Vehicles Could Transform Life for the Disabled

by Sam Chase
Earlier this month, Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection voted unanimously to approve a bill that would allow for far more autonomous vehicles on roads across the country in the very near future. Leading up to the vote, it's likely that many lawmakers heard radio ads encouraging them to back the measure.

However, the source of the ad was neither the large corporations developing self-driving cars, nor the lobbies that represent them.

It was the National Federation of the Blind.

The radio spots were the continuation of a trend of organizations that represent disabled people advocating for government assistance in accelerating the development of self-driving cars. It's easy to understand why: self-driving cars would mean far greater freedom for the elderly, blind and other disabled individuals who are unable to drive themselves.

People with disabilities wouldn't have to rely on others for trips to the grocery store or the doctor or to visit friends and relatives. Their quality of life would stand to improve drastically.

"Autonomous vehicles will be transformative for people who are blind," Dave Power, president and CEO of Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, told The MIT Technology Review last year. "For the first time, they will be able to get to school, work, and community activities independently, regardless of distance. There is tremendous enthusiasm about it, both here and nationally, among the blind."

That enthusiasm has been heard loud and clear, thanks largely in part to the National Federation of the Blind and other groups.

"The ultimate purpose of the National Federation of the Blind is the complete integration of the blind into society on a basis of equality," states the NFB's website. "This objective involves the removal of legal, economic, and social discriminations; the education of the public to new concepts concerning blindness; and the achievement by all blind people of the right to exercise to the fullest their individual talents and capacities."

To help achieve those goals with regards to self-driving cars, the NFB has joined the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. The Coalition was founded by Ford, Volvo, Uber, Waymo and Lyft -- a group of competitors with a shared interest in clearing the way for self-driving cars to take the road. Since April 2016, the Coalition has touted the societal benefits of autonomous vehicles to help sway the public and legislators towards favorable perception and policies.

A quick look at the bill passed on Wednesday, July 19 shows that they've been tremendously successful. The bill seeks to establish a "Highly Automated Vehicle Advisory Council," for which it describes eight different duties and committees, addressing cybersecurity, labor issues and environmental concerns.

Accessibility, however, gets top billing.

The first two duties are regarding "advancing mobility access for the disabled community," and "mobility access for senior citizens and populations underserved by traditional public transportation services."

Undoubtedly, there's an element of self-interest involved in self-driving car manufacturers appealing to the social benefits of their products. But if business is booming for those designing and producing self-driving car technology, it likely means that some of the most vulnerable populations in American communities are benefiting as a result. That's a win-win outcome that everyone can get behind.

Webinars

Blockchain for Connected Vehicles: Driving Toward A More Automated Future

Blockchain technology, the same system that backs cryptocurrency transactions such as Bitcoin, has the potential to revolutionize connected vehicles and autonomous driving. Russell Vegh, principal member of the technical staff at A&T Internet of Things Solutions, will provide an in-depth overview of blockchain technology touching on key concepts such as mining, smart contracts, and decentralized applications. He will focus on how blockchain could play a key role in autonomous vehicles, V2I and V2X. He will also discuss key challenges such as device identity, information privacy and adoption.

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