Steve Mahan looks like any ordinary man. He’s in his 60s, wears sweaters and beige pants, and drives a blue Toyota Prius. But as he walks out his front door, steps into his vehicle, and closes the door, a soothing computer voice chimes in with the words, “auto-driving.” The car gently rolls out of the driveway, and begins its windy path through the quiet Silicon Valley neighborhood. Suddenly, he takes his hands off the steering wheel, and jokingly says, “Look Ma, no hands.”
Of course, Mahan is anything but ordinary. He’s blind. And the Google car is driving itself.
“It uses radars and lasers to check and make sure nothing is coming,” a Google passenger explains. Mahan smiles, but he’s hungry for tacos. As if obeying his every word, the vehicle carefully pulls into the drive-through of a Taco Bell. Then, as if he’s done this before, he casually pays, and crunches on lunch as the car arrives at a small strip mall. He gets out, extends a white cane, and makes his way into the dry cleaner.
When Google unveiled a video of its autonomous vehicle, or AV, project in 2012, five million viewers flocked to see a glimpse of the future. But, for Mahan, it represented a chance to return to normalcy, giving him the freedom to do the simple things he once took for granted. He became a “star,” of sorts, a figurehead that embodied the ability of technology to restore independence in the lives of those with disabilities. So, two years later, I checked in on him to see the ways his life has changed.
When he could still see, he worked in media, creating advertising, calligraphy and fine art. “Everything I did was highly visual,” he said. “Then, suddenly, I lost all that ability.” Traveling to and from work also became impractical. “When you lose your vision, you lose your timing in life. You can’t do things at the pace you used to — everything just takes so much longer,” he said. “It’s like breathing through a straw.”
So he focused on helping those with similar disabilities, first as a client of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, and then, as its executive director, in charge of supporting those who face the challenges of permanent vision loss. According to the World Health Organization, over 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired. The leading cause of blindness in the U.S. is age-related macular degeneration, which destroys the part of the eye that sees in fine detail. But in 1991, Mahan was diagnosed with congenital nanophthalmos, a rare and devastating condition that robbed him of 95 percent of his vision.
He thought he’d never drive again, and as he grappled with the realities of blindness, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun had led the winning team in a $2 million DARPA competition. His vehicle drove itself across a 132-mile race course in across the Nevada desert. Shortly after, he hired two of his competitors to join him at Google.
Over a million people worldwide die in auto accidents each year, mostly due to human error. Motivated, in part, by the loss of a childhood friend in a car crash, Thrun embarked on a personal crusade to save one million. “I’m in service of humanity,” he told Fast Company.
Since self-driving cars don’t get distracted, they can not only save lives, but also travel in tight clusters, reduce stop-and-go traffic, save commute time, and improve fuel efficiency as well. “The concept is utterly simple,” he said. “You get into your car, you tell it where you want to go, and it just gets you there — and you’re free to do something else.”
To make this possible, Google mounts each vehicle with a spinning canister of sensors, which gather millions of data points a second, to register its surroundings — whether other cars, pedestrians, or flying debris. It sounds futuristic, but it isn’t. Pilots have used similar technologies to land airplanes in poor weather.
The real breakthrough came when Thrun determined the way we drive, and then, applied it to computers. “You’re not programmed with a list of 15,000 rules of what could happen,” he told Fast Company. “You drive, you ride with someone else driving, you experience it. So our cars experience it. We train them to learn and get better the more they drive.”
When Thrun and his team were ready for human drivers, he reached out to the Blind Center and got in touch with Mahan, who is a self-described “technology junkie.” He had followed the team’s progress, making him a natural choice to take part. “Living in the Valley, we’d see them from time to time,” Mahan said. Google’s self-driving vehicles have traveled over 140,000 miles, along California’s highways, through local traffic, and even winding down San Francisco’s famed Lombard Street.
Safety drivers sit behind the wheel in case of an emergency, but they rarely take control.
“They had a lot of experience with project personnel, like engineers, but not end-users,” Mahan added. “They wanted some of that feedback and how this technology would be viewed by communities that don’t have the same access to transportation.”
Mahan admits those who lose their vision often still keep a car in the garage, so they can slide behind the wheel, if only to recall the experience once so central to their everyday life. But beyond Google, he understands that technology can help those with disabilities in addition to blindness.
When Google asked him for an idea of a video with him behind the wheel, he didn’t suggest a drive to Disneyland, a scenic trip along the sunny coast, or a complicated journey along California’s several highways. Instead, he picked a monotonous route to a neighborhood business, with a stop at a drive-through, because it was ordinary. To the able-bodied and sighted, picking up dry-cleaning is a simple task. But for others, it involves a lot of timing, and in some cases, outside help. Mahan believed a basic errand was an ideal roadmap to showcase Google’s car, not to highlight the advances in technology, but to convey a bigger message that a simple convenience can be critical to disadvantaged people.
“There are some places you can’t go to, and things you cannot do, so something like [Google’s car] offers the independence and flexibility I need to go to the places I want to go to,” he said.
The idea goes against the standard view to create technologies for disabled people, where innovations are conceived, and then developed, to address only that specific limitation. While devices do improve conditions, according to Mahan, those innovations help only a small segment of the population, and are often far too costly, ironically for those who would benefit from them the most.
For example, CCTV video magnifiers, which have been around for over three decades, use a video camera to record, and then, project a view to a large monitor, allowing low-vision people to read printed items, such as mail, at magnifications as large as filling the screen with one letter. The tool is useful for the vision-impaired, but at $2,000 to $4,000 apiece, the specialized device is also prohibitively expensive.
Similarly, Braille, a mainstay for nearly two centuries, can remain elusive, too. According to the Blind Foundation, the system is the only reading and writing medium comparable to print, but its limited appeal to the mainstream means refreshable Braille machines can cost upwards of $15,000 each.
Meanwhile, companies developed technologies — such as voice-over, magnification, and Siri — for the mainstream, making it an affordable tool for the visually impaired. For example, GPS allows sighted people to meet friends at a restaurant without looking at a map or calling for directions, but that same technology is also crucial to help blind people navigate by foot.
Mahan believes solutions for disabled people won’t come from specialized innovations to solve specific needs, but from advancements for the general public. His philosophy? See if an invention is both “useful and intriguing” to sighted people. “Advancement in what are preferences to the larger population, can lead to solid gains for the visually impaired community in ways specifically designed tools cannot,” he said.
“[Smartphones] are convenient, portable and a lot less expensive than some previous technological tools, which weren’t as practical,” he added, marveling at the 50 or so people who regularly sit outside for each class to begin. Much like other students, they wait head down, device in hand.
Mahan said universities and high school students often ask him to check out products, as well. “We are happy to weigh in,” he said. “This is a really thrilling time on the tech side. The more toys the public has, the more tools the blind community has.”
Self-driving vehicles might be the biggest toy for sighted people, but they’re a life-changing tool for the visually impaired. While Google’s cars can’t come fast enough for Mahan, he expects operating systems in cars, with assistive technologies, to ease the transition in the near future.
He believes as car makers roll out assistive technologies in small doses, and people begin to expect them, we’ll become used to having less responsibility behind the wheel. This conditioning, he explained, is necessary for us to become accustomed to seeing driverless cars — and blind people — on the road.
What’s next? “What we’re going to see is apps for the average-sighted person, like something that tells you where in the store to get that tape measure.” he said. Since sighted people don’t want to wander in a big store, blind person can then use the same innovation to enter a store and grab what they need.
Mahan wants to see the simple idea of blind people who can walk into a room and then, in some way, survey the scene. While it’s easy for sighed people quickly — almost unconsciously — scan for obstacles, paths and locations, blind people find it time-consuming and difficult.
“When you walk into a room — of say, 20 people — you take the measure and set a course by all the clues you pick up by visually scanning that scene,” he said. “Your timing isn’t interrupted by trying to figure out how get across the room, or what unseen obstacles are in the way.” Mahan believes this kind of technology might come from developments in AV or military research, or possibly augmented reality.
While it sounds as fantastic as a driverless car once did, Mahan knows when the timing is right, someone brilliant will tackle the question, even if they aren’t thinking about it for blind people.
“Because it helps you, it makes it possible for me,” he said. ♦