Blind Drivers And Self-Driving Cars: How Congress May Also Approve New Work Options [Opinion]

Recently, Congress approved the first major bill on self-driving cars, and this comes after a big push by the National Federation for the Blind to make sure legally blind people are included in the language of these laws.

As someone that is legally blind, what I do not see in recent news stories is a personal explanation of how self-driving technology will actually be used by blind people to gain access to employment.

According to a July 24 report by Reuters, the U.S. House Committee approved measures that would allow car-makers to start selling self-driving cars over the next year.

While the House proposal says states cannot set standards for driverless car performance, the individual states are still setting rules for safety inspections, licensing, insurance, liability and registration.

Obviously, driverless cars are an immense asset to people living with disabilities, but the idea that autonomous vehicles will be used by a single passenger that is legally blind is still not official.

In July, Consumer Affairs reported that the National Federation for the Blind was pushing Congress to make sure blind drivers were included in how driverless car laws were written.

To clarify how blind drivers were being left out of driverless car legislation, Bloomberg reported in July that, “Florida, Michigan and New York already have laws that require operators of automated vehicles to have a driver’s license, which mandates a vision test.”

They also quoted Chris Danielsen from the National Federation for the Blind stating the following about the problems with current driverless car policy in some states do not leave options for the legally blind.

“Certain policy makers will say that even though it’s a self-driving car, I don’t want a blind person behind the wheel because I don’t believe that that’s safe.”

Laws that require a driverless car to have a passenger with a driver’s license when the vehicle does not need human interaction in the first place was called a “needless restriction,” according to the disability advocacy group, the Ruderman Family Foundation.

 Automated Cruising Chauffeur in Germany.

Alternatively, leading up to the new July legislation proposal that passed through the U.S. House Committee, the idea of including legally blind people in the self-driving car world was pushed by Google.

According to Washington Post, in December 2016, Google announced that its driverless cars division would form their own company called Waymo, and the first non-Google employee to be driven around by one of their autonomous cars was a legally blind man named Steve Mahan.

About the possibility of being the owner of a self-driving car one day, Steve Mahan stated the following after his Google Waymo test drive.

“This is a hope of independence. These cars will change the life prospects of people such as myself. I want very much to become a member of the driving public again.”

In the opinion of this author, as someone that has been legally blind for over six years, not being a member of the driving public with access to your own vehicle you can operate solo is also a huge barrier to employment.

For example, many people of pre-retirement age that lose their former jobs due to sight disabilities might not be able to transition into another career easily because it requires being employed while going back to be educated for a new job.

Autonomous vehicles have been in the works for a decade.

Obstacles to career transitioning include not being able to easily go back and forth to school while working an hourly job for low wages like many college students often do.

To be blunt, these jobs geared toward college students are not feasible to legally blind people because most service industry jobs require you to be sighted, have reliable transportation, and be able to change your schedule easily.

When you do jump through all the hoops and become employed outside of your home as a person that is legally blind, you are often dependent on local paratransit.

If you do not make enough money per hour to afford to take a taxi as a backup, your limited job options as a legally blind person can dry up completely if your local paratransit service is not flexible or dependable.

In the end, changing employment rates for legally blind people by making self-driving cars easier to access would be welcome.

According to the National Federation of the Blind, in 2014, 59.6% of legally blind people of working age were unemployed. The number of blind people living below the poverty line in 2014 that were between the ages of 21 to 64 was 30.5% out of an estimated 1,124,200.

[Feature Image by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images]