The idea of self-driving cars has been around almost as long as normal cars have been, but how close are we to actually having self-driving and autonomous vehicles on the road? Well, last week, London Vision got a taste of what it might be like when we visited Blind Veterans at their Brighton campus, and took a short trip in their own autonomous vehicle – named Arthur!

Arthur was made by Aurrigo, who make autonomous vehicles that specialise in ‘first’ and ‘last mile’ journeys. Their vehicles are currently used to link mass transport hubs, to help inpatients travel efficiently and safely between ward and leisure facilities and are even in service providing autonomous tour guide experiences. They have been working with Blind Veterans, testing an autonomous vehicle and consulting with blind and partially sighted people about the experience and potential applications.

So, what benefits could autonomous vehicles bring to blind and partially sighted people?
Bhavini Makwana tested Arthur out first and noticed one major plus on entering the vehicle: Arthur won’t argue with you about whether your guide dog is allowed in! She and her guide dog Colin were both comfortably accommodated by the autonomous vehicle, which, unlike normal cars, contains four facing seats, two on each side. Both Bhavini and Masuma Ali had assumed that Arthur would be very similar to a normal car, but actually it was much taller, with Bhavini remarking that it reminded her of a Smart Car.

The drive itself consisted of a short lap around a course on the campus, incorporating a bit of on- and off-road driving, showcasing the ability of Arthur to respond to changing terrain. We all felt very safe in the vehicle, despite the changes in road surface, and according to both Bhavini and Masuma, riding around in Arthur felt the same as being in a normal car - albeit one with a top speed of 10mph. I suppose it’s not surprising that it felt the same as a normal car – we are socialised from a very young age to travel in cars and are used to how it feels – if it felt very different, I suspect manufacturers would struggle to get passengers to trust it.

After speaking to the Aurrigo technicians – specifically about pre-programmed routes for the vehicles – Bhavini can see the potential of these vehicles for travelling independently in big venues. Instead of having to wait for assistance, which can often take a considerable amount of time, people could just “get into these vehicles and travel to the relevant part of the venue they desire”. However, despite the ability to pre-programme these vehicles, “blind and partially sighted people would still need an audio announcement to let them know that they have arrived at their desired final stop”.

Masuma said: “advances in things like autonomous vehicles is another step in allowing blind and partially sighted people more independence when out and about. It would be great to turn up to a shopping centre, jump in an autonomous vehicle, then tell it what shop I want to go to and be dropped off by the entrance!”
However, while we all felt very safe inside the vehicle, Bhavini had some concerns around the vehicle’s ability to respond to unexpected obstacles: “what would happen if something or someone unexpectedly stood in front of the vehicle? How would it be alerted and how quickly would the vehicle stop; and then, how quickly would it restart and continue on its journey?” This is an especially pertinent questions for blind and partially sighted pedestrians – in an age where the prevalence of (silent) electric vehicles is increasing day by day, how will Blind Veterans and Aurrigo ensure that pedestrians can hear their vehicle? The autonomous vehicle is still at testing stage, so didn’t seem to be emitting any sounds designed to warn pedestrians of its presence, but we hope this is something that will be incorporated into future prototypes.

Even so, there’s clearly still lots of exciting potential in this developing area of technology. Autonomous vehicles could offer greater independence for blind and partially sighted people and other disability groups. It was great to experience an autonomous vehicle first hand, but taking a trip in Arthur underlined the fact that widespread use is still quite far off.

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