Clean Energy Vision Could be Life Changing for the Blind

Tony Seba has been in New Zealand this week, and his visit has prompted some interesting discussion about the future of transportation.

Just as blindness technology has made its way into the mainstream in a number of notable cases, so also has technology where our needs weren’t at the forefront made a lasting difference to the lives of blind people that was never anticipated.

Tony Seba is a lecturer at Stanford University, and an expert in clean energy. He’s made the bold prediction that transportation is set for a radically different future. His vision is that by 2030, owning one’s own car will be the exception, not the norm. He points out that people invest a great deal of their income on a device that is idle for the vast majority of the day. It’s either parked at someone’s workplace, or parked at home. Add to that the space taken up with all these vehicles doing a whole bunch of nothing, plus the environmental damage and unsustainability of today’s vehicles, and you have a compelling argument that there has to be a better way.

In Seba’s vision for the future, most people won’t own a vehicle. Instead, a much smaller number of vehicles will be always on the move. When you need to go somewhere, hail a vehicle with your smartphone. You’ll use that smartphone to instruct the vehicle, which will be electric and self-driving, to take you where you want to go.

Once the vehicle has dropped you at your destination, it will zip off to take someone else, rather than be idly parked somewhere being a waste of space.

Seba believes that we’ll be using these clean energy vehicles before we run out of fossil fuels.

Some say the idea that all this could be achieved in 16 years is a ridiculous pipe dream. Others who are a little more generous call the idea “aspirational”. There are those who believe what Seba is saying is achievable, and in fact must be achievable for a bunch of important environmental and political reasons.

Not only would achieving such a goal be a technological challenge, it would be a massive political and systemic upheaval, given the considerable interests big oil exerts. It’s also interesting to contemplate how international relations may change if access to oil isn’t a major…driver, if you’ll forgive the expression.

Despite the challenges, it’s something disability groups should be investigating and promoting. Many blind people will recall that the impact of blindness finally really hit home for them when their sighted teenage friends began to drive. Those of us who are parents can testify to the extra care and planning that has to take place when you have a bunch of kids you want to take on an outing via public transport. At the very least, you’re watching the clock carefully at the beginning, and towards the end, of the outing.

There’d be very few of us who wouldn’t have at least a few horror stories to tell about taxi drivers who refused to take our dogs, couldn’t read a map or use a GPS system.

Taxis are also quite expensive, since you have to pay for the driver, the upkeep of the vehicle, and infrastructural costs. Here in New Zealand, this extra expense is offset by a subsidy of 50% of each trip, available to qualifying disabled people. Yet if most people were subscribing to a package allowing them unlimited rides per month, or a set number of rides for a specific fee, the cost is likely to be far less than a taxi because costs would be lower, and would be spread among a much larger user-base.

To be on equal terms with the sighted, to be able to obtain readily available, fully accessible technology to get from any point to any other point, would be absolutely incredible.

I think it would take me a while to get used to the idea that no one was driving the thing, but I’ll adapt.

You can read more about Tony Seba’s vision in this New Zealand Herald article, which also includes a link to a YouTube recording of one of his lectures. The audio isn’t the best, but it’s an interesting listen.

Do you think Tony Seba’s vision for the future of travel is realistic? How important a change would be able to jump into a self-driving vehicle be for you? Share your views in the comments.

2 Comments

  1. David Taylor

    I very much agree that this could well be the way of the future. I think, at least initially, one will need to have a driving licence to use one of these, and even though it will self drive by default, there will be an assumption that humans need to be able to intervene in case of something unforeseen, a software malfunction, someone or something in the way that is not spotted etc. I do think, over time, that this requirement could well be dropped. The next thing that needs to be done, for a totally blind person, is to work out how we find the vehicle in the first place, how we know where it has stopped, how we find our way from where it can drop us off to where we are actually going. Again, if we think about these things, I am sure a way can and will be found. So, eventually, I do think this could be very good for us. We do need to ensure that all vehicles make enough noise for us to hear them until self drive is the norm, and they can be relied upon to stop for us

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