The way a normal person sees and experiences life is not the same for the handicap people especially when we talk about the blind people. If someone can’t walk or only has one arm, he can still move around on its own because he can see with his eyes but if someone doesn’t have eyesight, he won’t be able to take a single step without assistance. Whether we talk about dogs that are trained to assist blind people or the walking stick that lets them analyze the road ahead of them, there is some sort of assistance that the blind people need.
Now imagine a blind person driving a car on the road like normal people. This seems a farfetched idea but you will be amazed to know that there are engineers and car manufacturers who are currently working on this idea and they had great success recently. It’s amazing to see that the nations that take extra precautions for their handicap citizens to live a normal life are the ones who are trying to design a vehicle that a blind person can drive without someone sitting in the passenger seat and giving voice commands to help the blind driver.
How a car for blind people will work?
When we talk about designing a car for blind people, there are basically two schools of thoughts. The first approach works on a fully autonomous car that doesn’t require a driver at all and it’s run with computer’s artificial intelligence. This seems more possible because these days we are seeing cars with advanced computer assistance. Take Tesla for example, this car comes with auto pilot that lets you give full control of the car to the computer and then the car drives automatically but there are limitations. There needs to be someone sitting in the driver seat. The driver has to keep his hands on the steering wheel and pay attention to the road all the time.
With all the benefits and advantages, this system is still at the basic stage and the manufacturer won’t take responsibility for an accident caused by auto pilot because the driver has to intervene if there is a possibility of accident and computer doesn’t take instant response to slow down or stop the vehicle. If an autonomous car is designed for blind people, it has to be fully operational for handicap people who will just enter in the vehicle and it will take them to their destination without them doing anything except enter the destination address in the GPS.
The second approach is a little interesting than that. Here a vehicle is equipped with sensors, radars, cameras and computer AI to let a blind person sit in the driver seat and actually drive the car with the help of voice commands. As soon the car starts moving, the driver will start hearing voice commands about the road i.e. turn right after 20 seconds and then drive straight, the steering is not straight, tilt it 5 degrees to the left to keep it straight, a zebra crossing is coming so slow down the vehicle and stop after 5 seconds etc. Along with the voice commands, there are also other types of sensors the vehicle will be equipped with.
For instance, the driver will wear a protective vest that will vibrate if he doesn’t follow the voice commands or the steering will vibrate to the left side if the computer wants the driver to steer to the left. Although this approach sounds impossible but recently the engineering students of Virginia Tech College built a customized vehicle designed for the blind people and they actually took it to testing. An actual blind person was sitting in the driver’s seat and he drove the vehicle with the help of voice commands and it was a major breakthrough.
Key Challenges in designing a Car for Blind People:
Although there are some successful experiments for designing and driving a vehicle for blind people, but we are far from the time when a blind person actually gets his driving license and starts driving a car to work or school. There are many reasons or elements preventing this technology to move forward and few of those elements are discussed below.
It’s not easy to Maintain Real Time Maps:
It is not rocket science to understand that if you are designing a vehicle for blind people, it will solely depend on the computer AI, navigation and GPS. This means the vehicle has to have most updated maps before driving on the road. This is important because there is a blind person sitting in the driver’s seat and if the road is blocked or leads to a wrong destination, he won’t be able to evaluate it. This is one of the reasons that these vehicles are still under development because it’s simply not possible have the most updated maps on the GPS all the time. At least it’s not possible at this moment and there might a revolution in the near future where the satellite is so advanced that it can instantly figure out the change in the terrain instantly after it occurs.
Computer AI is still not up for Complex Interactions:
A computer can do millions or even trillions of calculations per second and humans are not even close to it. But there are certain things that humans can do better than computers like; understand human expressions, evaluating behavior of other humans and most importantly, reacting to avoid an accident on the road. Don’t get us wrong because active lane keeping assistance, lane departure warning, blind spot warning and adaptive cruise control are still extraordinary features that computers perform better than humans. But we need the thinking of a human for the autonomous vehicle that can prevent an accident on the road.
Humans can do multiple calculations while driving a vehicle i.e. seeing the traffic signal, watching the people crossing the road and a truck coming from the opposite direction and their experience will tell them if they need to slow down the vehicle or not. This is something that the computer is still not good at and it needs better understanding of these complex interactions with objects and humans on the road before driving a car on its own.
Bad Weather can Confuse Computer AI:
Even if we design a vehicle fully equipped for blind people, there is still one challenge that the computer is not up to yet; compensating bad weather. Computer depends on sensors, radars and cameras to drive a vehicle and if there is an obstacle in front of the camera, the computer won’t treat it as snow flake but it will understand it as a hurdle. This is different for humans as we can drive well in rain, snow or dirt as well as on the smooth road on a clear day. Although this is a challenge but it’s not keeping this technology from moving forward. There are many researches that point out that all the tests of autonomous vehicles are done on smooth roads in clear daylight and none of these experiments were ever conducted in snowy weather or in rain. But, if we succeed in creating an autonomous vehicle that can drive well in clear weather, it’s still exceptional accomplishment and once we are certain that these vehicles are safe, we can take one more step forward to design these vehicles for bad weather.