Why driverless Tesla has me excited about the future of autonomous cars for disabled people

Robin standing next to a Tesla that he used for a test 'drive'So, I've fulfilled a long-held dream and 'driven' a car. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much of an earth-shattering announcement but growing up and knowing that my vision would get worse until I had none, I thought I’d never be able to drive. However, things are changing fast.

In the driving seat of a Tesla

Recently, I had a taste of potential future adventures behind the wheel when a colleague gave me the opportunity to ‘drive’ his Tesla. Okay – so I wasn’t actually driving but I sat in the driver’s seat, with my feet off the pedals, while he summoned the car into auto-drive mode.

I could feel the wheel turning in my hands as the car smoothly moved out of the parking space after being beckoned by a click on his keyfob. Here's my adventure captured on video (complete with my day-dream sequence inserted for good measure). Were it legal to use the fully-autonomous capabilities of the car on the British highway, it would be at this point that I would head off into the sunset. However, it’s only legal to do this off public roads for now.

The momentum behind driverless cars is building. In a big move, the UK government said last month it would amend the Road Traffice Act to cover driverless technology. Meanwhile Apple's ‘Project Titan’ autonomous car looks to be on its way, and we've seen Google invest $250 million in Uber for an autonomous taxi fleet. And, you will soon be able to buy an affordable add-on to turn your un-smart car into a fully autonomous one, as we see in this article about a $1000 kit to make your vehicle autonomous.

It's an exciting prospect for those with mobility, vision and other impairments and, most of all, for people who are blind and have wanted to be able to drive for as long as they can remember! Many believe these cars are also more safe and they are being welcomed by the insurance industry because of the rich audit-trail of data gathered by an autonomous vehicle's many sensors.

Driverless driving for disabled people within the decade?

Many cars, not just the Tesla, already have the capabilities for partial or almost entirely autonomous driving built-in and are awaiting the necessary legal approval to activate them, although we've already seen trials of driverless cars on UK roads. These cars have the option for self-parking, automatic lane-keeping (if you begin to drift on the motorway without first signalling) and ‘smart’ cruise control, ie, keeping a safe distance from the car in front, and more.

There are many wrinkles to be ironed out before we can rely completely upon this technology, but the general excitement (particularly among the disabled community) is palpable. Within the decade, I and many others could more easily take a car for a spin.

Autonomous cars need to be inclusive

The whole experience needs to be made inclusive, of course. Apps to hail or instruct these vehicles should be accessible, and the in-car experience needs to work for disabled people. There needs to be the necessary range of options for wheelchair users. And, as a blind person, I would want to be reassured about the movements and progress of the vehicle as we were driving, with audio cues. I spoke about this with Steven Scott on a recent episode of RNIB’s Tech Talk Extra show.

While we’re shifting up through the gears on our way to fully autonomous driving, there’s still time to campaign for a truly inclusive future for private transport. In the meantime, I’ll be day dreaming of a bit more autonomy in my personal future too.