Synopsis: Information on autonomous vehicles and how driver-less cars could provide a level of freedom previously unobtainable to people with disabilities.
On the 25th September 2012, California became the third US state to legalize the use of self-driving cars on its roads. The autonomous vehicles, created by Google, will now be allowed to be tested for regulations and safety standards in Florida, Nevada and California - and their creators say they will become a reality for ordinary people in the next five years.
An autonomous vehicle is defined as a vehicle that is able to plan its path and to execute its plan without human intervention.
For individuals suffering from disabilities, driver-less cars could provide a level of freedom that was previously unobtainable.
Although there have been a wealth of advancements over the last few decades in driving technology for wheelchair users, this doesn't always extend to individuals with visual impairment and other health issues, which eliminate the possibility of obtaining a driving license.
While previously people living with a disability may have had to rely on carers, family and public transport to get out and about on a daily basis, self-driving cars open up a new wealth of possibilities. An autonomous vehicle could allow a user to travel further to work, explore areas which aren't served by public transport and basically organize their own lives, whereas in the past this might not have been possible.
These cars may also provide the ideal solution to disabled parking. Users would simply pull up outside the location of their choice and the car could park itself elsewhere - perfect if all the disabled spots are taken.
The safety of autonomous vehicles is one that's hot on the lips of many observers. However, Google claims these cars will be even safer than human-driven vehicles, simply due to the lack of human error. Computers will not get tired or distracted and the company claims to have already tested them out on over 300,000 miles of road, without one single incident.
The future seems bright for these self-driving vehicles, but if you don't want to wait five years for technology to catch up with your travel needs, there are a range of helpful technologies available now to help you get around. Here are some of the more common options.
Wheelchair users can benefit from ramps, lifting belts and boards to help them get in and out of a car. Governments often provide grants to help modify existing vehicles or buy new ones if yours isn't suitable.
Wheelchair users can also benefit from the installation of hand-operated brakes and clutch controls on their vehicles.
Alternatively, for drivers with weak or artificial arms, steering may be move to be controlled by the feet, in addition to horn and indicator operation.
Hearing loss and profound deafness require greater reliance on other senses, in particular sight.
Many deaf drivers modify their vehicles with extra mirrors which allow them to see more of the road. This is a very simple customization which can usually be undertaken in any garage to provide wider peripheral vision and reduce the size of the blind spot.
Deaf people are also encouraged not to sign when traveling in a car, whether driving or traveling as a passenger as this means having to take your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel.
Individuals who are partially sighted may be allowed to drive using extra mirrors and vision technology - but fully blind people in general cannot take control of a car. However, technological advancements in addition to the self drive cars mentioned at the beginning of this article may mean this will soon be a possibility.
In 2009, the first blind driver took control of a vehicle designed by Virginia Tech College of Engineering students.
The car requires no sight at all, instead using voice command software, laser range finders and more, to help provide blind people with the ability to drive themselves in their own adapted vehicles. After trialling the car, one user described the experience as liberating.
The technology developed during this process has benefits for drivers across the board, rather than the blind community alone. For example, physical buttons on a dynamic steering wheel may replace touch screen technology such as sat navs, which allow users to feel their away around vehicle controls instead of having to take their eyes off the road.
This sort of travel technology can make driving safer for all.