First User Of Google’s Self-Driving Car Is Legally Blind

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Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, "drives" in Google's self-driving car.

Google has released a video taken in January of the first user of it's self-driving car, Daniel "Steve" Mahan, who is 95 percent blind. The video shows Steve casually sitting in the driver seat of a blue Toyota Prius outfitted with laser range finders, radar, cameras, and inertia sensors as a Google employee in the passenger seat monitors the car via laptop. With a "self-driving car" label on the bumper, the vehicle successfully zooms around town allowing Steve to pick up his dry cleaning and go through the drive-thru of a Taco Bell for lunch. Google posted the video along with news that its tricked out cars have logged 200,000 miles on the road, but makes it clear that this was merely a technical experiment and a way to let Steve experience the possibilities in autonomous driving, which someday may become a reality.

It's just a shame that the reality is so much different: we are so far from self-driving cars on the road as a norm because of cultural attitudes and bureaucratic roadblocks. But that's exactly what Google is trying to change with this video, which is likely not to be the last of this type of marketing for its technology.

Check it out to see for yourself:

It was only a year and a half ago that Google first announced it's driverless car endeavor, which was a logical extension in a way from Google Street View cars. We've been keeping a close watch on this program from its announcement to the legislation passed in Nevada to have all autonomous cars use a red license plate to indicate that the driver is a robot., and even the driverless car accident that was caused by another driver. Now, the car with a bumper labeled "self-driving car" has logged 200,000 miles of road driving and Google is making it clear that this is the future. As China races to develop its own driverless car and other companies try to come up with their own autonomous vehicles, the inevitability of a driverless society seems to be a certainty. The question is, how long it's going to take before its commonplace?

To see the details of how the self-driving car works, check out Google's video presentation from six months ago at IROS 2011"

Clearly pleased at receiving the moniker of "self-driving car user #0000000001", Steve describes how the autonomous car would "give me the independence and the flexibility to go the places I both want to go and need to go when I need to do those things." He has a good understanding of what this technology could do for the visually impaired. He's the CEO/Executive Director of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, a community based organization in San Jose, CA that focuses on providing support to those who are facing the challenges of uncorrectable vision loss. Because of his impaired vision, Steve doesn't have a driver's license, so the test drive required a sergeant from the Morgan Hill police department to come along for the ride.

If you want to get a sense of what it would be like to be in one yourself, here's yet another video capturing the experience from the passenger seat:

In the end, this news from Google is cool and fundamentally a marketing effort aimed at changing perceptions. Most people can reason for themselves that autonomous vehicles would help not only the visually impaired, but anyone with a disability to have mobility that would be life-changing. Yet, we need to see people like Steve for ourselves to be reminded of what's at stake. Perhaps this video can help those who are afraid of driving in a car where they don't have control or being on the road with robots to see beyond their own fears about the coming age of robots and appreciate how this technology can do lots of good for others.

*Update: A new study reports that 37 percent of polled motorists said they definitely or probably would purchase a self-driving system in their next car. My question is, ONLY 37 percent? Really?

[Media: YouTube]

[Sources: FoxNewsGoogleSanta Clara Valley Blind Center]

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 4 Responses

  • tim333 March 29, 2012 on 2:22 pm

    I don’t think cultural attitudes and bureaucratic roadblocks are the problem. It seems perfectly legal just now as long as there is a qualified driver sitting there. You may think what’s the point if there is a driver but there are for example millions of people out there like my father who is in his 80s and perfectly legal to drive but who chooses not to as his abilities are not what they used to be. Many would be happy to buy self driving car if one was on the market.

    When it comes to letting vehicles loose on the road with no one in them I’m not sure the tech is ready. What if you send your delivery vehicle to drop something off and there is no where to park legally, a common problem in real life. What if the police flag it over – would it recognise them? I presume these things will be solved in time.

    One of the main problems with the Google cars which seem about the only ones ready for prime time is that the laser gizmo costs about $70k. If they could produce a $5k version I’m sure there would be a market.

    • Joe Nickence tim333 March 29, 2012 on 4:09 pm

      I think what will be a game changer is after there is a regular market for autonomous cars, a conversion kit will be introduced that has all the sensors and computing capabilities for cars on the road today. That will be your $5k breakthrough.

  • sliwintm March 30, 2012 on 10:32 pm

    The tech has much larger impacts if properly executed. Take a look at Ford’s TED talk.

    I for one see this as being a luxury item… at first. As the tech develops, insurance companies will catch onto how much much safer autonomous cars are than having humans in control. The fact is that our two eyes will never be a match for the array of multispectral sensors they have on this thing. Eventually autonomous cars will be cheaper to own and operate than non-autonomous ones. I can only imagine how some will react.


    • arpad sliwintm March 31, 2012 on 5:21 am

      I don’t think it’s our eyes that are at issue but our judgment.

      I’ve hit the brakes when I saw a ball come bouncing out from between parked cars knowing a kid might easily be chasing the ball. He was and I didn’t hit him. Would autonomous car have that degree of awareness? Also, what about marginal road conditions? If the roads are dangerously icy what will an autonomous car do? This story makes it clear you can’t depend on the passanger to step up to the role of driver at need.

      With that out of the way, as I’ve written elsewhere, I see the most likely initial role of autonomous cars as driverless cabs. Without a driver the cost of running a cab diminishes significantly. And just to make electric vehicle fans happy I’ll throw in that I believe the two, autonomous cabs and electric drive trains, go together quite well.

      As a cab the short range of EV’s becomes significantly less important then as a private car. The cab that shows up will have the range to complete the trip or, before the cab shows up the passanger will know it doesn’t and be offered alternatives – a trip to the mass transit station or a rental car outfit.

      The advantage to the customer is that they only purchase the use of the vehicle not the vehicle which, while not necessarily advantageous on a cost-per-mile basis, will certainly be advantageous if you don’t drive very much.

      Designing for use, an autonomous electric cab ought to be able to hook up to a recharger without human intervention and it ought to be designed to make maintenance tasks like passenger compartment cleanup and tire changing doable without human intervention.

      If I’m right about autonomous cabs one of the repercussions will be an end to intra-city mass transit. Part of the economic advantage of buses is one driver for many passengers. In a world of cheap, autonomous cabs is there much place for a human-driven bus or buses at all?