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What a Google Car Means to My Blind Son

Nate Lentz
January 28, 2015

My son Nicholas is almost twelve and he has been blind for most of his life.  For seven years he was mostly blind with a shade contrast, but he lost that five years ago and has been completely blind since then.  He goes to a school for the blind, which is working on getting him ready to be mainstreamed for high school.

Nicky is fortunate to live in the decade he is living in because technology is making his life so much easier.  He has a braille computer, which allows him to type in braille and upload it to a flash drive (and eventually the internet) in text for non-braille readers.  He can also take in content, have it translated to braille, and then read it on this computer through small pins that form a flow of braille delivered at his fingertips.  He also has all the Steve Jobs gifts of accessibility, which have been built into his iPhone and his iPad.  He manipulates those devises, is self sufficient on the phone, sends and reads texts and emails, and watches movies when he wants (or listens to them).  Books on tape through iTunes or Audible allow him to be one of the best-read people in our house.  It is amazing what enabling technologies have emerged in Nicky’s short lifetime.

None of these innovations compare to the promise of the Google car.  For a blind person, it is a life changer.  Nicky and I were driving one day listening to a discussion of the Google car on NPR.  We both listened for a while and then during a break, Nicky said to me, “Dad, when will those cars be ready?  Do you know how that would change my life?”  I looked over at this little kid – ten years old at the time – and I marveled.  I asked him, “Nicky, how did you know I was thinking the same thing?”  He grabbed my hand, which he rarely does unless he needs to be guided from one place to another, and he smiled at me.

Since he learned about the promise of the Google car, he brings it up regularly.  When I imagine Nicky as a grown up, I do not see him with a dog or a cane walking down streets and finding his way or trying to manage public transportation.  I see him in a Google car, talking non-stop to the computer robot, and feeling excited about offering others rides in his car.  His guide-dog will be sitting next to him, enjoying the ride, and ready for the last segments of the trip that cannot be driven.  I know autonomous cars are a reality for the future, whether from Google or Tesla or someone else, and I know they will change Nicky’s life.

For some of us, consumer technology is a luxury we can live without.  For others, like Nicky, technology is a game changer that continues to change their lives for the better.  I look forward to Nicky giving me my first lift in his car and in joining in on his non-stop conversation with his computer driver.  I also look forward to watching him head off, completely on his own, a boy and his dog and his robotic car, and then watching him return hours later with complete confidence in himself and in his technology.  His guide-dog will be more companion than support, another job casualty of technology’s onward march.