On a recent summer afternoon, a small green vehicle slowly circled the parking lot at Perkins School for the Blind. Adaptive Technology Trainer Tim Cumings, who is blind, sat behind the wheel.
“How fast can this thing go?” he asked.
On that particular day the answer was…not very fast. The prototype, part of a fleet of self-driving vehicles designed by a local technology start-up, was programmed to go less than 15 miles per hour.
But that didn’t take away from the significance of the moment as the Perkins community witnessed technology that will someday revolutionize transportation for individuals with visual impairment.
“That’s one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a while,” said Educational Technology Coordinator Jim Denham, who is also blind. “A car driving by itself.”
The vehicle is the creation of Optimus Ride, an autonomous vehicle company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was on campus for the first of many testing sessions at Perkins, where the team is gathering data to help improve its self-driving software.
“Up until now we’ve been testing in a facility where there are no obstacles,” said Guillermo Baptiste, an MIT student interning at Optimus. “We want to be able to drive in a real environment with challenges where you have to pull over or stop for pedestrians.”
During their first visit to campus, Baptiste and his colleagues held an information session for the Perkins community where they explained the suite of sensors that help the vehicle “see” its surroundings. The sensors communicate with a central computer, located under the driver’s seat, which then controls the vehicle’s movements.
Data gathered at Perkins will help build the vehicle’s pattern recognition capabilities, so it can identify obstacles and calculate the safest course of action.
“You don’t want to emergency brake in front of a crumpled paper bag” said Optimus co-founder Ryan Chin. “No one’s expecting that.”
For its inaugural drive at Perkins, the vehicle followed a pre-programmed route around a cleared area. Perkins staff took turns climbing aboard as Optimus intern Shantanu Jain pushed “Enter” on a small laptop mounted on the dashboard. The rest of the ride was hands-free, as the steering wheel, gas and brake pedals moved according to computerized instructions.
“It felt like any other ride to me,” said Perkins spokesperson Jaimi Lard, who is deafblind. “I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact it was actually a driverless car.”
In addition to testing their vehicles on campus, the Optimus team will collaborate with Perkins to learn more about how their technology can best serve riders with visual impairment or other disabilities.
“Our goal is to engage the community around this,” said Chin. “How do you engage with this type of technology? How should we design the interfaces to work better?”
Several dozen people took part in an Optimus workshop discussing how the vehicles could be employed as self-driving shuttles on college campuses. Among the participants were Perkins President and CEO Dave Power and Perkins Solutions Vice President Bill Oates, who said the technology could represent a “sea change” in transportation and mobility for people who are blind.
“We could really make it easier for people with visual impairment to just go about their daily life,” he said. “It’s great at this early stage to have this kind of dialogue going on with our community. It’s a subject matter that I think over time will reap so many different kinds of benefits for us.”