Self-Driving Cars And Blind Pedestrians

Dr. Lance Eliot, AI Insider

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Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column:

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I was driving along Ocean Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway (PcH) in Malibu and Santa Monica, California when I came to a stop at a crosswalk that had no traffic signal. It was dicey that this major crosswalk has no traffic signal since it is commonly used by pedestrians that are trying to cross from the “inland” side of the street over to the ocean side of the street.

In a pack of pedestrians there was an elderly man with a white cane. He was moving the cane back-and-forth and tapping it on the ground.

It was probably handy that there were a lot of pedestrians crossing since otherwise I’d have gauged that he would have ended-up maybe half-way across and the rest of the pedestrians would have completed crossing by then. A large enough swell of pedestrians was sufficient to cover him throughout his crossing.

I’m sure you are wondering whether or not California has a driving regulation that says you are supposed to stop and let a blind pedestrian cross the street. Yes, we do. I’m sure you then are thinking, well, if it’s the law, shouldn’t this blind man have no qualms about crossing the street in the crosswalk, whenever he wishes, whether alone or with others?

I certainly agree that the theory is that the drivers here would abide by the law, but I can tell you that the drivers here aren’t necessarily that law abiding to begin with (they readily driver over speed limits, they drive excessively fast in school zones, etc.).

Legally Blind Aspects

You might find of interest that there are an estimated 1–2 million legally blind people in the United States, and perhaps 7–8 million people all-told that have some kind of “visual disability” that renders them relatively blind (some prefer the phrase “visually impaired”).

There is a somewhat strict definition for the phrase “legally blind” in that it means you need to have 20/200 or less vision.

The states that have the most people with a visual disability or impairment include California, Texas, New York, and Florida.

Drivers And Blind Pedestrians

The in-observant drivers aren’t watching to see whether someone is blind.

According to the driving code, one aspect that in-observant drivers often do, and which can make life especially harder for a blind pedestrian, involves coming to a stop part-way into the crosswalk.

People that are sighted can presumably readily see that your car is protruding into the crosswalk and walk around it. This can be troubling at times for even sighted pedestrians, particularly when there is a large number and it isn’t easy for them to flow around the front of your car that is intruding into their crosswalk walking space.

A blind person might not so easily detect that a car is protruding into the crosswalk. They are right to assume that the crosswalk is supposed to be unencumbered.

Besides the in-observant drivers, there are also drivers that try maybe too hard to help a blind pedestrian. These eager beavers want to make sure that the blind person has ample room and also try to protect them from other drivers. It’s a nice sentiment, but sometimes goes over-the-top, including honking their horn as a gesture of assistance, which typically is jarring and not particularly helpful.

AI Autonomous Cars And Blind Pedestrians

What does this have to do with AI self-driving driverless autonomous cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. One aspect of robust AI software for driving is that it considers how to deal with pedestrians, including the case of pedestrians that are blind.

On the topic of blind pedestrians, most of the auto makers and tech firms would tend to say that this is an edge problem. An edge problem is one that is considered at the edge or corner of what you are otherwise trying to solve.

Admittedly, the odds of an AI self-driving car coming upon a blind pedestrian is going to be overall somewhat rare, since it all depends on where the AI self-driving car is actually driving.

In that sense, the auto maker or tech firm would argue that worrying about driving aspects for coping with blind pedestrians is low on the priority list.

They would also tend to argue that if their AI self-driving car is already programmed to deal with pedestrians in general, there is really not a need to do anything special regarding blind pedestrians.

I consider such AI developers to be rather myopic in their views. I think that they perhaps cannot put themselves into the shoes of the blind pedestrian to understand how the aspects of the AI can potentially help or hinder a blind pedestrian (I refer to such AI developers as being egocentric in their designs).

Right-of-way And Blind Pedestrians

As per the driving code here in California, a car is supposed to give the right-of-way to a pedestrian that is blind.

How can you or the AI figure out that someone might be blind?

As a human, you would look to see if the person had a white cane, and/or possibly a guide dog. You might also do a kind of facial recognition, trying to look at the face and eyes of the person, if possible. You might also observe how the person walks and moves. These are all tell-tale clues about whether the pedestrian might be blind.

Unfortunately, for today’s sensory systems on AI self-driving cars, by-and-large the depth of analysis of pedestrians is relatively shallow. Pretty much the goal of most AI systems of today is to just determine that an “object” is a pedestrian versus being say a fire hydrant or street post.

Trying to figure out if the pedestrian has a cane is not included in many of today’s AI sensory data interpretation routines.

Many of the sensory systems don’t even try to computationally pick apart a group of pedestrians, such as a pack that is standing at the curb or walking across the street in a crosswalk. It would take a lot of processing cycles to figure out each person in the pack, including what is a person versus not a person, which arms and legs go with which person, their direction and pace, and the rest of those separation aspects is all computationally hard to calculate in quick time.

Based on the toughness of being able to discern a blind pedestrian, and along with the presumed rarity, there isn’t much effort going toward trying to craft specific capabilities for this purpose. This means that blind pedestrians need to do their best to be no different than other pedestrians, which, places the burden somewhat more so on their shoulders, when in fact we should be hoping for AI self-driving cars that can do a better job than human drivers in coping with blind pedestrians.

Ridesharing Might Increase The Chances Of Encountering Blind Pedestrians

One aspect for AI self-driving cars that might increase the chances of possibly getting near to or somehow entangled with blind pedestrians involves the advent of ridesharing via AI self-driving cars.

It is widely predicted that AI self-driving cars will be extensively used for ridesharing. Imagine that you can at any time of the day and any day of the week be able to readily get an AI self-driving car to come and pick you up. No need to deal with human drivers.

This also means that those AI self-driving cars are going to be pulling up to the curb in all kinds of varying situations.

This brings up too a different topic that relates to blind pedestrians, namely if a blind pedestrian wants to take a ride in an AI self-driving car, will the self-driving car and the AI be able to accommodate this kind of pedestrian?

You would hope so.

The AI will need to ensure that it converses with the passenger in a sufficient manner to keep them informed about the driving journey, perhaps more so than a sighted person. This can get tricky too as to where to drop-off a passenger, since a sighted person might readily look out the window and tell the AI that the spot chosen is not a good one, but a blind person is unlikely to be able to make that same kind of judgement due to lack of sight.

I’ve not yet mentioned the role of guide dogs in this matter.

First, similar to the limitations of today’s sensory systems to identify pedestrians, the capability of AI for identifying dogs and particularly guide dogs is very primitive and not at all akin to what a human driver might be able to discern. You might be surprised to know that there are actually aren’t that many official guide dogs in the United States, perhaps 10,000 or so, and thus the odds are that a blind pedestrian will probably not have a guide dog and would be using a cane alone instead.

In any case, we’ll eventually want the AI to be able to discern dogs and other pets that are on the sidewalks and in our roadways, along with being able to figure out whether the animal has a particular purpose. In the case of the blind pedestrian, the presence of a guide dog could further aid the AI in ascertaining that the pedestrian might be blind (of course, it could be a sighted person training the guide dog, etc.).


Blind pedestrians are already considered by the driving code and laws to be warranted for special treatment by drivers.

It is incumbent upon the auto makers and tech firms to make sure that AI self-driving cars not just treat blind pedestrians as any kind of pedestrian but include extra capabilities and care for detecting and ensuring that blind pedestrians do not inadvertently get hit or run over by the AI self-driving car.

Let’s not turn a blind eye to that important challenge.

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Copyright © 2019 Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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