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How autonomous vehicles are changing the future of accessibility

The Sight Tech Global conference is a virtual non-profit event that brings together the top technologists working on AI-related technologies that are having a huge impact on accessibility, especially for the blind and visually impaired. TechCrunch Editor and Reporter Kristen Korosec spoke Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired CEO Bryan Bashin, Foundation for Blind Children CEO Marc Ashton and Waymo Product Manager Clem Wright about how autonomous vehicles are changing the future of accessibility.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Let's talk now about the future of accessibility for the differently abled. Our friends over at TechCrunch spoke to the nonprofit Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired about how self-driving cars are going to be impacting accessibility. Take a listen.

- As a blind person myself, I can't independently get into a car and drive. So right now, I have to get into TNC with a person who may or may not have a status with COVID. Autonomous vehicles offer the chance to have no COVID exposure. That's going to be with us for a few years. So I think first and foremost, that's what people think of. And there are a couple of other advantages.

Despite what we like to say, there is still a lot of discrimination against the now almost 10,000 blind Americans who use guide dogs. Autonomous vehicles will not have that discrimination. Anyone gets in the vehicle. And maybe most profoundly, there's a kind of deeper social equity.

Sometimes we just don't-- as blind people, we don't want another person to be in our business. We want to just go somewhere. We don't have to answer questions. We just want to get there, be independent. And so, that equity of being able to go, just like anybody else on a mission, is really profound and will be a huge advance.

KRISTIN MYERS: Marc, I'm wondering what your viewpoint is. Are there accessibility barriers that you think that autonomous vehicles are in a unique position to remove?

MARC ASHTON: I think with all technology, you know, when we have first speech-- text to speech software, it was, you know, clunky and what have you. But technology has brought it leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades. And I think with autonomous vehicles, the technology is going to move very quickly. And any problems that do come up with accessibility, I think that technology will be able to solve.

I mean, it's the ability for just putting the features that some of these autonomous vehicles are doing, which is like a beeping-- the ability of the rider to beep the car's horn so they could find the vehicle, for the Braille inside the vehicle, for the vehicle to explain to the rider where they are at any given time, how far they are to the distance. All that is progressive. So they keep adding these features as they get feedback from riders, but also, just from the community in general.

And a lot of those features, to be quite frank, are just as helpful for sighted people. Being able to find your car by touching the button on your iPhone is pretty global. And so, [INAUDIBLE] great. And I think one of the most of things about autonomous vehicles is just the safety factor, just the, you really aren't getting in a car with a stranger, you know? And we all love ride hailing, and it's been a great transformation.

But you're still getting in a car with a stranger. And some people, that's very uncomfortable with. And they don't know that person that you can't-- especially if you're visually impaired, they can't identify that person later. And so, I think it's a very-- non-driver could be a big safety factor.

KIRSTEN KOROSEC: So why don't you, then, walk us through the-- how Waymo has approached, not just the design of its vehicle, but importantly, also, the ride hailing app, which is known as Waymo One in the Chandler area, but to make it accessible to all user groups, and in this case, specifically for blind and low vision users.

CLEM WRIGHT: Sure. Yeah, that's a great list [INAUDIBLE] and definitely a number of things that we've talked about and you and I have discussed as well.

- Yes.

CLEM WRIGHT: So, we do think of-- our overall approach is not to think of, here are a couple of features that we're going to build just for low vision users or for users with other disabilities. It's about thinking about the entire user journey from the first time you install the app and start onboarding with Waymo, to getting dropped off at your destination and every step in between, and thinking about what the needs are at those different points in the journey. And different people are going to have different needs. And we want to make sure we meet those throughout.

So, a number of things that Brian called out, like finding the car at pickup, finding the destination and drop-off, really massive challenges. And we found that in-- by doing user research with users with a diverse-- diverse abilities, we're able to pick out certain needs and build certain features that then help everyone.

So for example, the honking the horn feature that Marc called out, this was something that we did build. We were more originally, hey, this is something that we know that low vision users are going to need. So we built this out, and we tested it. And we actually were running a separate usability study, a totally different feature, for all sighted users in this study. And they were trying to find the car pick-up, just as part of the flow.

And we accidentally left the honk horn feature on. It was just a prototype phase at that point. And the person-- so I was like, oh, I need to find the car. They honked the horn, and the car was pulled up around the back of the hotel where we were testing.

And it was a huge lightbulb moment for me, where it was like, oh, yeah, obviously, this is going to be helpful for everyone. And we've seen that time and again in a number of different features we've built, where we'll think of more extreme needs that people with disabilities may face and brainstorm features around them, but then realized, hey, this is something that affects everyone.