Reinventing the Wheel: Are Self-Driving Cars Empowering or Endangering Those Who Can’t Drive?

Madison RutherfordJanuary 21, 2021
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Waymo users Marc and Max Ashton; Photo courtesy Waymo
Waymo users Marc and Max Ashton; Photo courtesy Waymo

Autonomous vehicles provide those who can’t drive – the blind, the disabled, the mentally vulnerable – with a sense of agency. But are the potential impacts on public health and security purely positive?

Many teenagers remember being handed the keys to the family car and the freedom of taking a drive by themselves for the first time.

Max Ashton  didn’t get that opportunity.

The 24-year-old Phoenix resident was born blind. His father, Marc, is the CEO of the Foundation for Blind Children, a Phoenix-based organization that focuses on enabling blind and visually impaired individuals to be independent and self-reliant.

“Our students can go to school with their sighted peers, they can go to work with their sighted peers, they can do everything with their sighted peers,” Marc says. “But they can’t get in a car and go wherever they want whenever they want without relying on somebody else.”

What if they didn’t have to rely on someone else? What if Max and others like him could enjoy the safety and privacy of their own vehicle, commuting from one point to another at their leisure, without a driver to help them?

Enter autonomous vehicle (AV) technology, once the stuff of science fiction, but now available to any Valley resident willing to download a phone app. Dozens of corporations are jockeying for position in the market, from established car manufacturers like General Motors and Tesla to ride-hailing companies like Zoox, Cruise and – most famously – Waymo, an 11-year-old subsidiary of Google, which operates a facility in Chandler and has being using Greater Phoenix roadways as a laboratory for its self-driving minivans since 2016.

Max Ashton riding in a Waymo autonomous vehicle; Photo courtesy Waymo
Max Ashton riding in a Waymo autonomous vehicle; Photo courtesy Waymo

Besides their obvious impact on workaday commuters and car owners, AVs hold massive promise for those who can’t drive due to physical disability or mental impairment. But there are still several obstacles to overcome – including the question of whether AV technology actually makes roads safer.

Early on, AV companies zeroed in on the Phoenix area as a favorable proving ground for self-driving vehicles. The Valley is one of the fastest growing regions in the country and has a diverse population with unique transportation needs. It also offers everything self-driving car companies need to continue building safe and reliable technology: a vast area with broad streets in a predictable grid, an abundance of sunshine and a forward-thinking infrastructure.

Courted by Governor Doug Ducey and wooed by lax regulation, including minimal insurance requirements, AV cars started appearing in the Valley in 2016. Uber put its distinctive Ford Fusions on the road, gathering mapping data and machine-learning experience, while Waymo unleashed its fleet of modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Computer-chip manufacturer Intel also had a testing team in the Valley.

Paul Welden and Amy Chou started utilizing driverless vehicles after each suffered a traumatic car accident.; Photo courtesy Waymo
Paul Welden and Amy Chou started utilizing driverless vehicles after each suffered a traumatic car accident.; Photo courtesy Waymo

Following a high-profile fatal accident, Uber was forced to suspend its operations in Arizona, but the Waymo program – which uses Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) systems to detect and navigate the surrounding environment without a driver – has evolved. The company now operates a commercial self-driving taxi service called Waymo One in the Phoenix metro, the only U.S. municipality where the service is currently available to the public. It works similarly to other on-demand ride-sharing services, in which the rider calls a car through an app, except when the car arrives, there’s no one behind the wheel.

Typically, driverless vehicles have backup drivers in the event that the ride needs human intervention. However, Waymo One has been operating 100 percent autonomously since October 2020 – an exciting leap forward for the blind and other nondrivers.

“Although there are other modes of transportation – public transportation, taxis, rideshare companies – that’s all great and many of us use them, but those of us who have access to a car enjoy the privacy of a car, enjoy the safety of being alone in a car and don’t have to rely on a stranger to get us to and from where we’re going,” Marc says. “All the blind community is looking for is that same autonomy, that same safety, that same privacy, and it’s the one piece of their lives that they don’t have complete control over. An autonomous car gives them that control.”

Max says driverless vehicle services like Waymo are “life changing” for those who are blind or visually impaired “I can’t drive myself to the grocery store. I have to rely on other people,” he says. “It’s that step of independence. To be able to do anything without having to think about it makes a big difference.”

Driverless technology can also greatly benefit those with nervous system and neurological conditions, those who use wheelchairs and senior citizens who are unable to safely drive themselves. According to Suzanne Matsumori, the executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Arizona, nearly 40 percent of people with epilepsy have uncontrolled seizures – medication, devices and surgery cannot cure them – and are prohibited from driving.

“Having driverless cars available would give them a lot more freedom because they’re stuck in their home and rely on others,” she says.

Andrew Maynard is an AV expert and teaches at ASU.; Photo by Samantha Chow
Andrew Maynard is an AV expert and teaches at ASU.; Photo by Samantha Chow

It would also help people like Tempe couple Amy Chou and Paul Welden, who were both in serious car accidents in 2017. Though they didn’t sustain permanent physical injuries, Welden says their respective accidents resulted in psychological consequences.

“Since then, we’ve been more acutely aware of human interaction and driving,” he says. “It’s actually changed our perception and understanding of what it means to be a safe driver.”

Chou sees an important distinction between AV technology and ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. While all of the above options help a rider get from point A to point B without his or her own vehicle, only AV protects passengers from distracted driving.

“I can name countless times where I’ve been in an Uber or Lyft and have not felt safe because the driver was trying to figure out the map as they were driving or were talking on the phone or texting,” Chou says. “All those elements are not an issue when you’re riding in a Waymo vehicle. You’re able to monitor what the LiDAR system is able to see as it’s scanning, and it really reinforces this level of trust where you can visually see everything that the computer is picking up from your surroundings.”

Waymo will not be the only belle at the ball for long. Tesla CEO Elon Musk predicted last summer that the company would have fully autonomous driving software ready by the end of 2020 – though he’s flouted his own deadlines in the past – and other car manufacturers like GM and Daimler are believed to be close to debuting their own tech. Meanwhile, competing ride-hailing services using AV are incubating throughout the world. Zoox is currently testing a robo-taxi service featuring retrofitted Toyota Highlanders in San Francisco and Las Vegas, while competing startup Cruise launched its testing program in San Francisco, Detroit and Scottsdale in 2017 and announced it will be marketing a rides-haring service in the near future.

Self-driving technology does not arrive without controversy and skepticism. The foremost concern: Is it safe? Popular anxieties about the technology were crystalized when a self-driving car deployed by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe in 2017. Soon after, the state banned Uber from testing its technology on public roads in Arizona.

The incident ultimately proved a fatal blow for Uber’s AV aspirations. In November, the company flipped its entire AV program to a Silicon Valley startup, essentially tapping out of the self-driving technology market.

Other AV technologies have had more success in terms of safety. In the 70 billion miles driven by Arizona’s 3.4 million motorists in 2019, more than 120,000 car accidents occurred, and 911 of them were fatal, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation – a fatality rate of 1.4 deaths and 76.56 injuries per 100 million miles driven. Meanwhile, across 6 million miles in Arizona, Waymo recorded 47 “contact events” – which include fender benders and bumps not typically reported as accidents – with no serious injuries.

“The majority of… traffic crashes are due to human error, such as driving while distracted, drowsy or under the influence,” Waymo chief operating officer Tekedra Mawakana says. “Our goal is to responsibly test and deploy technology that removes the common causes of human error, and through continuous refinement, will increasingly improve safety.”

To achieve that goal, Waymo vehicles have completed tens of thousands of trials on a private test track and driven more than 20 million miles on public roads throughout the U.S., with a focus on urban and suburban streets. The company also recently shared its safety framework with the public, an overview of the inner workings of several significant operations processes, information on its hardware and public road safety performance data, which analyzes the miles driven on public roads in Arizona.

“We believe this transparency and accountability is important for demonstrating the trustworthiness of our operations, and critical to deepen the dialogue around autonomous driving safety,” Mawakana says.

Programming a driverless car that’s safer than a drunk or distracted driver is one thing. The real challenge for the industry is programming a car that’s better at avoiding drunk or distracted drivers than the average flesh-and-blood driver – the main mental stumbling block the industry faces in convincing the public to hand over its keys.

No matter how good the programming, an autonomous vehicle may get in a crash with a distracted, intoxicated, fatigued or otherwise impaired driver. As such, a Waymo fare has insurance to cover its passengers and third parties. Cruise, Tesla and Lyft are currently testing rides-haring services that will offer similar coverage.

As for self-driving cars’ accident-avoidance capabilities, some pundits insist the gap between human drivers is not as great as it seems to be. Speaking about the Uber tragedy, Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Innovation Lab at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, says the incident was due to a familiar factor when it comes to driving: human error.

“You had a pedestrian in the road where the programming of the car wasn’t expecting a pedestrian. You had a self-driving system that really wasn’t as advanced as it should be in terms of identifying where there was a pedestrian and where it should take action. And, of course, you have the human factor,” he explains. “You have the backup driver in the car not paying attention to the level that they needed to in order to make sure that vehicle was safe. You think about the human factors of Uber putting a vehicle on the road in self-driving mode that probably wasn’t ready for being on the road. It wasn’t the technology that was at fault so much as the decision to put it on the road in the first place.”

The next step is normalizing the technology – no small feat in a society that prizes privacy and personal property. Some car owners have eagerly embraced AV technology, with its more digitized, networked capabilities. Others are leery of owning a vehicle that’s so intimately wedded to online networks.

“I’m sure people were really nervous getting in an elevator in the early 1900s and pushing that button to go 10 floors and being worried that the elevator is going to fail,” Marc Ashton says. “Now, no one even thinks about it when they get in an elevator. It’s just part of life. This is as safe as the evolution of the seat belt.”

And the next move? Mawakana says it includes exploring a number of other applications including trucking and delivery. Though Waymo does not have a definitive date set for personal car ownership – or public plans to manufacture its own, purpose-built AVs – it is working with its original equipment manufacturer to eventually provide select consumers with their own, dedicated autonomous vehicles.

“We have thousands of riders using our service in metro Phoenix and have cars driving on public roads in many other cities,” she says. “We also hope to be able to bring our technology to more people in more places.”

Whatever misgivings the general public may have about driverless cars, for a specific demographic – people who can’t legally or physically drive themselves – the technology holds obvious appeal. “They’ll [finally] be able to do basic things, like go to the grocery store, go to the doctor and visit friends in the local area,” Matsumori says.

Waymo has also built a variety of accessible options within its service, ranging from the app to the in-car experience. “Our app includes features that help vision-impaired riders find the car at pickup, such as a button to honk the car’s horn from the app to assist with locating the vehicle,” she says. “The app also supports screen readers… and includes educational riding tips to explain what to expect before users enter the vehicles.”

The Waymo One fleets have Braille buttons and assistive audio cues to aid blind or low-vision riders throughout the trip. Deaf or hearing-impaired users can contact the rider support team through a chat feature instead of a voice call.

Companies like Zoox also acknowledge the importance of accessibility and are developing wheelchair-accessible vehicles and incorporating technology for deaf and blind customers. Before selling its AV division, Uber created driverless cars with ramps and lifts and other transportation solutions for those who may need extra assistance.

“Self-driving cars could radically change the abilities of people who have various disabilities to have the autonomy to live the lives that they want to live,” Maynard says. “It enables individuals to decide where they’re going to go and when they’re going to go there.”

Those who advocate for the technology believe it is revolutionary.

“Self-driving cars are an incredible technology that is literally going to change the world,” Max says.

CPU on Board

A brief history of self-driving cars.

Photo courtesy commons.wikimedia.org
Photo courtesy commons.wikimedia.org

1939

GM unveils its vision of an “automated highway” at the New York World’s Fair.

Photo courtesy Stanford University
Photo courtesy Stanford University

1964

Stanford University researchers begin work on the Stanford Cart, the first AI machine to independently navigate foreign environments with on-board sensors.

Photo courtesy commons.wikimedia.org
Photo courtesy commons.wikimedia.org

1977

Using special white street markers, Japanese engineers at Tsukuba Mechanical train a driverless car to navigate simulated streets at 20 miles per hour.

1986

German robotics pioneer Ernst Dickmanns programs a Mercedes-Benz van to drive hundreds of miles of highway independently.

2004

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) challenges AV teams to compete for a
$1 million prize, spurring U.S. research.

Photo courtesy commons.wikimedia.org
Photo courtesy commons.wikimedia.org

2008

Sponsored by Google, a modified Prius called the “Pribot” crosses San Francisco in a controlled street trial. It’s ultimate goal: pizza delivery.

Photo courtesy General Motors
Photo courtesy General Motors

2013

With the backing of GM and Honda, Cruise Automation begins AV research, with GM’s Chevy Volt as its main platform.

2016

All Tesla vehicles are manufactured with the hardware for full autonomy, the company claims. All that’s missing: reliable AV software.

Photo courtesy Waymo
Photo courtesy Waymo

2018

Partnering with Lyft, Google-owned Waymo begins commercial ride-hailing service in Greater Phoenix.

Photo courtesy Navya
Photo courtesy Navya

2019

French company Navya markets the world’s first commercially available AV – a 15-passenger sightseeing shuttle called the Navia. Price: $250,000. Top speed: 12 mph.

Photo courtesy Cruise
Photo courtesy Cruise

2020

Cruise unveils the Origin, a six-seat electric vehicle designed for the ride-sharing industry.

Photo courtesy Tesla
Photo courtesy Tesla

October 2020

Tesla begins pushing “full self-driving” update software to select owners – the beta-phase software needed for full autonomy.

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