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CERA looks to the promise of driverless vehicles for the vision impaired

The Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) has revealed it is looking to collaborate with companies, industry, and peak bodies in the development of autonomous vehicle systems.

“Australia’s rapidly aging population and increasing incidence of diabetes means that vision-loss is likely to become one of the most prevalent disabilities in Australia,” said CERA Managing Director, Professor Jonathan Crowston.

“Access to mobility services for the vision-impaired will become an urgent priority to maintain quality of life and full community participation,” he said.

CERA, a world-leader in vision research, is proposing a project to assist in the development, implementation, and promotion of autonomous vehicle systems for the vision-impaired.

“We can bring value to the enhancement of these systems in a myriad of ways, from our deep knowledge of the needs of the vision-impaired to our ability to leverage our position affiliated with a top university to harness expertise in the medical, legal and engineering fields,” said Professor Crowston.

Developing systems and enhancements to meet the needs of the vision-impaired will have the added benefit of improving the utility and value of driverless systems for all travellers.

“Now is the time to progress such an initiative and I have asked Steve Hurd, Councillor for the Glenferrie Ward of The City of Boroondara, to coordinate and lead this project as an Honorary Fellow,” said Professor Crowston.

Steve, who was born legally blind holds degrees in Law and Arts and has held various legal and advocacy positions. In addition to being a serving councillor he has strong community and government connections and is passionate about the potential of autonomous vehicles.

Steve has long dreamed of the advent of driverless vehicles.

“It was 1969. Four boys were eating their lunch at school just after the moon landing. Like lots of boys they talked about rockets, cars and of course dreamed of a day they would have their own vehicle. There was one slight problem, these boys were all blind. Tim Palmer, Tim Smith and Michael Holman were sitting with me – nine-year-old Steve Hurd. One of us asked “…I wonder if they will ever make a car we can use?

“We started breaking down the problems. Being blind you should think like an engineer to problem solve so we put our minds to the task. We realised some navigation system would be required, a radar system and a group of sensors would have to determine proximity.

“Almost 50 years later that is exactly how Google, Tesla and others are solving the problem. Now, I am a councillor at the City of Boroondara and a fellow at the University of Melbourne working on a project to make sure autonomous cars are usable for vision-impaired people.

“When I finally get a driverless car, I will call it Tim Holman as all three of my best friends are no longer with us. Tim Palmer and Mike Holman passed away due to brain tumours and Tim Smith was tragically hit and killed by a car in 1977. They would have loved this project,” said Steve.

The driverless vehicles now being designed and built will have huge implications for people who are blind and vision-impaired.

“It will be the biggest boost for independence, employment prospects and social integration we have ever seen,” added Steve.

CERA already has researchers active in areas relevant to the driverless vehicles. A recent research project, led by Professor Robyn Guymer developed a novel driving simulator assessment to determine the effect of early age-related macular degeneration (AMD) on driving.

Listen to a short podcast interview with Steve Hurd.