When the government of Ontario announced it would make testing of automated vehicles legal in the province as of January 1, 2016, a little relief swept over me. I have cerebral palsy, and although I’m happy with using my mobility scooter and public transportation to get around Toronto, I have a girlfriend and we may want kids one day, so I recently decided that it was time to learn to drive.
Right now, the prospect of doing so isn’t easy. If you are a person with a mobility disability in Ontario and want to drive, you first need to get your G1 licence. Then, with $500 and a referral, a simulator tests your driving abilities.
This assessment determines whether you need hand controls to help you drive. A new vehicle modified with hand controls can run between $20,000 and $80,000 and some people with disabilities find them too cumbersome to use.
“The standard issue hand controls of the 1980s and the hand controls of now have not changed one iota in 30 years,” says my friend Kent Loftsgard. He quit driving in early 1989 because he found having one hand on the accelerator/brake and one hand on the steering wheel dangerously uncomfortable.
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Typically, standard hand controls feature an accelerator on one side of the steering wheel and a steering knob on the other. Any driver using hand controls must hold down the accelerator with one hand, and steer with the other using the steering knob. But steering knobs are illegal for drivers who don't use hand controls for the same reason Loftsgard quit driving — steering a car with one hand gives you less control over your car than steering with two.
Aside from this feeling of insecurity, another issue is the relative shortage of full-service gas stations and a widely exploited accessible parking system that the province is only now beginning to address. Those who opt for public transit instead often face a lack of accessible bus or streetcar options, and chronically underfunded para-transit systems that must be booked at least 24 hours in advance.
Ever since Google announced its self-driving car project in 2010, however, hands-free driving has now become a possibility for many.
Steve Mahan, for example, continued to drive his car after losing the sight in his left eye in 1993 due to a rare degenerative disease called nanophthalmos. Always the driver in his family, the resident of California’s Santa Clara County would increasingly limit his time on the road until one rainy day in 2005.
“I remember having to turn off the freeway onto a country stretch because I realized that I was not safe,” says Mahan, now 63. “I sat there and cried in my car because something that I had done for who knows how long and that everyone else could do, I could just no longer do it.”
Mahan's right eye lost almost all its sight, rendering him 95 per cent blind. His new reality meant forever being at the mercy of others to get around. To make matters worse, he lived in California, where nearly everyone drives and public transportation is spotty at best.
But then in 2011 some neighbours in Silicon Valley came calling. It was Google, and through a series of in-depth conversations — and some special permissions from law enforcement — Google would eventually invite Mahan to be “Self-driving car user #0000000001” in 2012.
“It was an answer to a prayer,” says Mahan.
He describes his experience of riding in the driverless cars as “perfectly secure.” Google did the right thing for every situation, he says: the car never accelerated too fast or too slowly, and never rode the brake. The acceleration curve, and the way it took corners, was always gradual and smooth.
“I hadn't sat on the driver's side of a car for seven years and just to sit there brought back a flood of natural memories.” He admits that his experiences have made him an evangelist for the technology, and believes in its restorative powers for his own life.
But one expert says that future is still at least a decade away for Ontario.
Currently, if you’re testing autonomous vehicles in the province, there must be a licensed driver in the car—someone who can take control of the vehicle within a second or two.
“There was no need for human intervention during the routes Google did with Steve, but if you look at the larger track record for that same Google project, they’ve had 341 interventions over the 14-month test period where they drove a million miles autonomously,” says Steven Waslander, director of WAVE Laboratories, the autonomous vehicles laboratory at the University of Waterloo.
Of the Google project’s 341 incidents, the car asked for human intervention 250 times due to software failure. In 80 of those the person felt uncomfortable but the car wanted to keep going.
Before a person with a disability can safely pilot these vehicles, Waslander says, Google needs to get reliability up to beyond human levels, and the current $200,000 price tag needs to become more affordable.
“Ultimately, all of these options require a certified driver,” he says. “You still have to be able to drive and what's more important is you still need to recover from the autonomous system given the limited amount of reaction time. It's not an easy thing for a new driver or a driver with any sort of impairment.”
Mahan also drove Google’s new prototype vehicle, which has neither a steering wheel nor pedals, but Waslander believes that model is still 15 to 20 years away from mass production. These cars also have yet to be tested in winter when risks include: degradation of the car’s sensors, obscured lane markings and puddles. This is why testing them in Ontario is such an important step in the process.
Waslander predicts that individual cars will be automated before public transportation systems, since development investment typically goes to the bigger market first. Though there are many wrinkles to iron out, he still believes driverless cars are the answer for the transportation woes of people with disabilities — but those people will have to be extra patient.
“It will be a while before the technology can help those people who have no option to drive and for those people that do have the option to learn how to drive, it will ease the burden of driving sooner, but be prepared to have to take over from the autonomous system for at least the next decade.”
Aaron Broverman is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.