Steve Mahan, a legally blind man, sits in the driver's seat.
Steve Mahan doesn't have a driver's license. He is 95 percent blind -- well beyond the legal limit to get behind the wheel of a car -- yet he was recently in the driver's seat as rolled through a Taco Bell drive-thru and picked up his dry cleaning.
How? Google's self-driving car. Google has been testing its hands- and feet-free car since 2010 and was recently awarded a patent on the technology. In a Google+ post, the company stated it conducted the test with Mahan as a "technical experiment outside of our core research efforts" to demonstrate how this technology could benefit society if "rigorous technical and safety standards can be met."
Watch Mahan take the car for a spin:
As PC Magazine points out, having a blind man drive a car under most circumstances would be illegal, but the Morgan Hill Police Department said this test drive was conducted in accordance with the law. Detective Sgt. Troy Hoefling oversaw the test and also told the magazine that there is no law in California governing how self-driving vehicles are to be operated:
"Where I justified it was that I compared it to a 15-year-old taking driver's ed," he said. "Unlicensed, learning to drive, with a licensed person next to them that could take control in an emergency situation."
According to Hoefling, the passenger in a Google car can take control in three ways: via a brake pedal on the passenger side that can stop the vehicle, via an emergency stop button on the center console that can be reached by anyone in the vehicle, and by means of the laptop the Google representative is seen holding. In all three cases, the car can be stopped, but not remotely controlled except by the driver's steering wheel, he said.
Police were in the vicinity of Google's self-driving car, but did not stop traffic or otherwise interfere, Hoefling said, who called the car's performance across the mile and a half or so that it traversed "absolutely flawless."
In the clip, Mahan jokes, "Look Mom, no hands. And no feet." Mahan seems to sense where the vehicle is based on its speed and directional motion. He also says, "This is some of the best driving I've ever done." Although traditional drivers may be advised against eating a taco with both their hands while riding down the road, Mahan does so with confidence that he and those around him are still safe.
At the Taco Bell drive-thru.
On a more serious note though, Mahan says being "well-past legally blind" is a disability that causes you to "lose your timing in life." He said everyday activities take much longer and there are some places he just cannot go. The technology inside Google's driverless car, he said, would "change his life" by giving him independence and flexibility.
Fox News reports Eric Bridges, government affairs director for the American Council of the Blind, saying the "concept of it is pretty awesome," but he acknowledges there are many hurdles to overcome before it is a reality for the blind community:
“There are a lot of hoops that are going to need to be jumped through in the years to come: Things like driver’s licenses and regulatory stuff to allow these vehicles to traverse roadways. But the technology is absolutely intriguing,” he said.
Bridges, who is himself completely blind, took a ride in Google’s self-driving car last year, on a visit to the company’s Mountain View, Calif., facility.
"We had it out on the Interstate and allowed it to take over. It was pretty amazing, going in between lanes, making sure there was enough distance between us and the car next to us in another lane,” he said.
Bridges noted that the technology has incredible potential not just for the disabled.
“Wouldn’t it be wild if you called for a taxi and a car showed up with no one in it? Wouldn’t that just be nuts? But conceivably, that could happen, given this technology.”
“They’re helping to change the world in a lot of ways,” he added.
According to Google, its research team has completed more than 220,000 miles of testing with the car, which uses software combining information collected from cameras inside the car and sensors outside the vehicle that help locate its position. It combines this information with Google Street View. Google said there is still much testing that needs to be conducted before the vehicle more officially hits the road but it's getting there.