Lyft self-driving cars offer tactile maps, diagrams for blind riders

Aptiv’s self-driving cars on the Lyft ride-hailing network drove down the Las Vegas strip with blind and low-vision passengers along for the ride. 

For many of the riders, this was their first time in a self-driving vehicle of any sort. After three hours and about 50 demo rides in conjunction with the National Federation of the Blind’s annual convention in Las Vegas, it was also a way to demonstrate how the blind and low-vision community can use robo-taxi services.

Each ride included a paper tactile graphic with braille describing what makes the car autonomous (LiDAR, radar, cameras, and other sensors) and how the self-driving tech works along with a tactile map of the route to the Vegas sign. The paper map and diagram were made with the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired nonprofit organization.

A braille, tacticle guide to the self-driving car.

A braille, tacticle guide to the self-driving car.

Image: Lyft

More descriptions of how Aptiv's self-driving cars work.

More descriptions of how Aptiv’s self-driving cars work.

Image: LYFT

Marco Salsiccia is a blind passenger who consults for Lyft and its accessibility programs. With the NFB annual convention in Vegas this year, he suggested a more interactive experience for riders taking self-driving rides. In a phone call from Vegas, he talked about “mobility independence” for others like himself who “don’t have to rely on others to get around.”

“We can now go places,” he said about self-driving technology and ride services like Lyft’s.

Lyft uses Aptiv’s modified BMW 540 vehicles to offer autonomous rides in Las Vegas. Earlier this year, Lyft reached 50,000 self-driving rides since launching the service in 2018. You can get matched with a self-driving car through the Lyft app, but you can’t specifically request an autonomous car pick you up — yet.

The demos this week included paper guides with braille diagrams, but Chris Danielsen from NFB is thinking about what this means beyond the fixed-route rides down the strip. 

“This demonstrated the commitment of Lyft and Aptiv to the idea of full accessibility for blind people,” he wrote in an email. “Going forward, as these vehicles go into more mainstream use, there will need to be additional nonvisual real-time interfaces created so that blind people can locate the vehicle, follow its progress, and interact with its systems as needed.”

For blind and low-vision passengers, ride-hailing apps like Lyft open up accessibility. Combine that with self-driving cars and there’s more potential for getting around independently — and affordably. The Lyft ride in the Aptiv cars cost as much as a traditional Lyft ride. “This is a group of folks who has been particularly excited about what this portends,” Tommy Hayes, senior manager of policy partnerships at Lyft, said from Vegas. 

After the convention ends, the Aptiv cars in Las Vegas will continue to have the tactile graphics showing all self-driving features in vehicles available for any blind or low-vision passengers who use them. 

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