Accelerating towards a disability-friendly driverless future

It’s been a busy few weeks for the driverless car and a future where anyone can get around autonomously, regardless of disability or impairment, feels closer than ever.

Elon’s exciting announcement

Driverless cars streaming along streets near us seem part of a futuristic vision that’s still some way off. A recent clarification regarding a seemingly insignificant component within a popular electric car, however, may put a whole new timeline on that prospect.

After some disquiet on the internet, Tesla’s CEO was recently prompted to provide some clarification on why a camera pointed in towards passengers in the new affordable and much awaited Tesla model was needed. Elon Musk confirmed that the camera located above the Model 3’s rear-view mirror is there for when the car will legally be allowed to work as an autonomous taxi. 

“It’s there for when we start competing with Uber/Lyft,” the CEO wrote on Twitter. “In case someone messes up your car, you can check the video.” 

Photo of dark grey Tesla Model 3

Let’s just digest that tweet for a second. What Musk is saying is that the Tesla Model 3 as it ships in its thousands today is fully capable of autonomous driving and needs no additional hardware – just the flip of some remote software switch somewhere as and when the law gives the green light. At around $35,000 this means that the necessary tech to gather and process the millions upon millions of calculations each second required to navigate safely on city streets, country roads and motorways are now so affordable as to be able to be included by default in a mid-range car that isn’t even allowed to use them in full as yet.

The CEO said that he plans to allow Tesla owners to make extra money from their cars by renting them out as autonomous ride-sharing vehicles. The result, he hopes, is to “dramatically” lower the car’s cost of ownership “to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla.”

As a blind person, I’m seriously contemplating a future where the purchase of a car might not only make sense given my disability, will enable me to get from A to B with the same levels of convenience and freedom that everyone else has enjoyed for so long, but may actually beef up my bank balance too! What a prospect.

Want a ride in a Waymo?

Another notable story that’s surfaced recently pointing at an autonomous future being closer than we think concerns Google’s spin-off driverless car division; Waymo. Waymo officially launched its first commercial driverless taxi service in the cities surrounding Phoenix, Arizona, in the US late last year. 

Until now, the app that riders use to summon one of Waymo’s self-driving minivans was only available via a private link in an email invitation, but now anyone can download the app from the Google Play Store and add their names to Waymo’s growing waiting list of eager riders. Of course, if you don’t live in those few select cities, you might be waiting a really long time. 

Photo of a white Waymo taxi

So Google isn’t going global with it’s autonomous taxis as yet, but at least its going public. Waymo is essentially opening the flood gates for a torrent of requests to ride in its self-driving cars, with the obvious implication that soon everyone in the Phoenix area (well, Android users anyway) will get the chance. What about iOS users? The app works in iOS, but Waymo says it will need to work out a deal with Apple before it can make its way into the App Store. 

For me at least, these two stories taken together speak loudly and clearly to a driverless future being closer than we might think – and I, for one, am a wee bit excited.

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