I am sitting in a self-driving vehicle – known as a pod – with Mark Threadgold, a 51-year-old classic-car enthusiast who lost his sight 19 years ago. The pod is shaped like a cable car, and is surprisingly roomy inside. It’s a blustery morning and waves are battering Brighton marina, which is less than two miles away. But our pod seems untroubled by the elements as it glides down a private road at 6mph.
Our journey makes Mark the first blind person to take part in an autonomous vehicle trial. “Write that down,” he says, laughing. Wednesday was day one of a six-week trial led by vehicle manufacturer Aurrigo and the charity Blind Veterans UK.
During the trial, hundreds of blind veterans will use the pods to move around the charity’s training and rehabilitation complex in East Sussex. Researchers will ask them for feedback, using cameras to monitor how they use the vehicle.
Mark and I are replicating a short journey down a steep hill to a barn, where the charity holds events. People with poor vision or mobility can usually only make this trip if a bus is arranged to transport them. But driverless pods could allow them to make the trip whenever they want.
Helping independence and avoiding isolation
Mark is excited by this technology because it could help him regain some of the independence he lost along with his sight. “I seldom go into Brighton because I don’t know how to get somewhere after I am dropped at a bus stop,” he says. “Something like this will be far better because it could take me exactly where I want to go.”
Improved mobility for disabled people has long been touted as a benefit of autonomous vehicles. But campaign groups are concerned that their needs are not being factored into the design of cars. Last year, the National Federation of the Blind in the US warned that it would be “exploitation” if autonomous systems were not made accessible for blind people.
“There have not been many blind people included in the innovation of driverless cars,” says Dr Renata Gomes of Blind Veterans UK. “This trial is important because when we surveyed our blind veterans, 98 per cent said the thing they missed most was their ability to drive. It gave them independence and made them feel less isolated.”
Dr Richard Fairchild, of Aurrigo, says feedback from the participants will shape the final form of the pods. “When you have a design team that does not represent all of the people you are designing for, you are going to miss things,” he says. “We need to get the voices of those who are seldom heard.”
The technology will soon be with us
Future pods might also incorporate an audio commentary of the pod’s surroundings to help blind passengers build a mental map of the route and know when sharp turns are approaching. Another could be a smart system which recognises its users and offers them music or a weather update depending on their previous choices.
Within two years, these pods could be used in large off-road complexes such as theme parks, airports and hospitals. Driverless cars are also being tested in Milton Keynes, Manchester, Coventry and London. The Government hopes to allow completely self-driving cars on UK roads by 2021. It has already earmarked a driverless bus service for crossing the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh, and self-driving taxis in four London boroughs.
Safety concerns remain, however. In an RAC poll, 62 per cent of those surveyed said they would be scared of driverless cars being on the road, and in a MoneySuperMarket survey 60 per cent said they feared such cars could be hacked by criminals.
Mark, though, has no such worries – but then he did used to enter his classic MGB sports car into races. “Before I lost my sight, I used to jump in the car and rag it around a country road to get rid of some aggression,” he said. “I’ve really, really missed it.”
Our journey comes to an end, and the pod’s door opens to let in the gale from the English Channel.