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Amazing! Google's self-driving car allows the blind to drive

 

"This is some of the best driving I've ever done," Steve Mahan said the other day.

Mahan was behind the wheel of a Toyota Prius tooling the small California town of Morgan Hill in late January, a routine trip to pick up the dry cleaning and drop by the Taco Bell drive-in for a snack.

He also happens to be 95 percent blind.

Mahan, head of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, “drove” along a specially programmed route thanks to Google’s autonomous driving technology.

Look, ma! No hands. And no feet!” Mahan jokes at one point in a video of the event, posted online Wednesday by Google. “I love it,” he added.

“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?”

- Eric Bridges, the American Council of the Blind

Google announced the self-driving car project in 2010. It relies upon laser range finders, radar sensors, and video cameras to navigate the road ahead, in order to make driving safer, more enjoyable and more efficient -- and clearly more accessible. The search engine giant was awarded a patent on the system in December.

In a Wednesday afternoon post on Google+, the company noted that it has hundreds of thousands of miles of testing under the belt, letting the company feel confident enough in the system to put Mahan behind the wheel.

“There’s much left to design and test, but we’ve now safely completed more than 200,000 miles of computer-led driving, gathering great experiences and an overwhelming number of enthusiastic supporters,” Google wrote.

“The concept of it is pretty awesome,” Eric Bridges, government affairs director for the American Council of the Blind, told FoxNews.com.

“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.

SUMMARY

Using lasers, range finders and radars, Google is building driverless cars. The company has spent years developing the tech:

Feb. 29, 2012: CEO Eric Schmidt says driverless cars soon to be a reality.

Dec. 16, 2011: Google granted a patent for self-driving car tech.

Oct. 20, 2011: Autonomous car tech is unveiled.

July 10, 2009: Hints of an autonomous car of the future?

Mahan has no driver's license, of course -- just one of the hurdles that had to be crossed: Google enlisted the aid of Sergeant Troy Hoefling with the Morgan Hill Police Department to accompany the drive.

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.

The video underscores the incredible potential of technology to help enable the disabled, but Google cautioned that it may be years before such technology is ready for the public.

“We organized this test as a technical experiment outside of our core research efforts, but we think it’s also a promising look at what this kind of technology may one day deliver for society if rigorous technical and safety standards can be met.”

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.