by Mitch Bainwol
From the Editor: At the 2018 National Convention on the afternoon of July 8, 2018, Mark Riccobono said, “I have pages and pages of introduction for our speaker. The most important thing for you to know is that Mitch Bainwol has the responsibility of leading the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an organization that has come to be a true friend of the blind of America and has helped us provide leadership in both pedestrian safety and in the emerging area of autonomous vehicles. As you heard in the presidential report, we were honored to be part of a number of events in the autonomous vehicle space with the alliance over the past year that demonstrate that they recognize that when it comes to making sure that the automotive industry of autonomous vehicles thinks about equal access for blind people, there’s one organization to call, and that’s the National Federation of the Blind. Here is our friend, our colleague, Mitch Bainwol.”
Good afternoon, everybody. It’s great to be here in Orlando. I’ve been in the room for about an hour, and I can tell you I am blown away by the joy, the energy, the passion—congratulations to Hans [a cofounder of Be My Eyes, who received a Bolotin Award] and all the other award winners. So I’m going to take a few minutes and talk about our partnership and talk about technology. I’m really proud to represent the auto industry in Washington and in all fifty states, especially at this remarkable time for mobility, and I bring greetings from the most dysfunctional city in America—so thanks for the excuse to escape.
Before I jump in, let me thank President Mark Riccobono, Vice President and Board Chair Pam Allen, the NFB’s amazing staff, and all of you for this warm welcome. I really appreciate it. I hardly ever travel on Sundays, and I’m going on from here later today to California. I’m going to be with Secretary [of Transportation Elaine] Chao in San Francisco, but I really wanted to take this opportunity to be here to say thank you and to share some thoughts about the amazing technology that is revolutionizing transportation today and what these developments mean for society and for you.
While I’m honored to be here as a speaker, I’m even more humbled and delighted by the productive and uniquely strong relationship we’ve forged in recent years. Our partnership between the nation’s foremost advocacy group for the blind and its foremost alliance of automobile manufacturers is sure to make a difference. The faster the pace of change, the better. Working together we can and we will accelerate the enormous benefits innovation offers for everyone.
Topping the list in our collaboration has been the Coalition for Future Mobility, a pioneering network that joins dozens of advocacy groups, associations, and companies together in the fight to speed up the deployment of self-driving vehicles. This is an active coalition, and everyone in the game has stepped up. But no organization has been more committed or more effective than the NFB. [applause] NFB’s push for a regulatory framework in Washington and the states that will foster the rapid development of these AVs, [autonomous vehicles] the partnership has already yielded success: we passed the bill in the House of Representatives unanimously. When passed by the Senate, this act will create national rules facilitating the development and testing of self-driving cars, cut through the chaos of different state laws, and provide a mechanism for large-scale testing once key safety standards have been met. That large-scale testing is essential to get these cars on the road so that you can be in them.
Importantly, this testing will also offer special provisions to protect access by the disabled, including people with visual impairments. The NFB has been invaluable in this mission. Self-driving technologies promise to yield a huge dividend for the mobility of persons who are blind across the states. You know that, but politicians didn’t know that, but they’re learning fast. Together, we’re going to push for Senate passage, and I’m optimistic that this common-sense, bipartisan bill will soon become law.
I was also honored last September to join Mark at an event in Michigan with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao when the secretary unveiled a paradigm-shifting revision in the government’s policy for autonomous vehicles. That Mark was featured at the event shows the respect and importance the NFB plays in the policy process at the very highest levels of government. At that event Mark said it very well, he said it perfectly: “The development of self-driving vehicles will remove the artificial barriers of the past that have hindered mobility and accessibility for the blind and push toward a future in which sightedness does not determine mobility.”
Secretary Chao’s vision of the future focuses on three highlights: vehicle safety for all, flexibility for auto makers to experiment with new technologies, and clarity in the legal framework. In recognition of our ongoing partnership and the NFB’s pioneering push toward the self-driving future, the Auto Alliance this past January recognized Mark with the inaugural Autos2050 Innovation Award. He was up there in a room with about seven or eight major innovators from across the globe who are working with the technology. Mark is obviously driving not the technology but the policy, and everybody has got a huge piece of this puzzle. [applause]
All of these initiatives, as Mark mentioned, built on our earlier collaboration on the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, which mandated that a sound be added to electric vehicles so that people who are blind or visually impaired can hear the vehicles approaching. I’m eager to see how our partnership moves forward into the future.
So where are we? Let me tell you where we are: the answer is we’re in the midst of an historic transportation revolution. It began a long time ago in 1956 when then-President Eisenhower signed the law establishing our nation’s highway system linking every major city in the country into a seamless network of high-speed roads. It enabled the growth of suburbs and allowed the movement of people and goods with remarkable speed and convenience. This is still the paradigm we operate with today, but the system is under strain. Congestion is everywhere. Americans spend billions of hours every year in traffic. Roads are far safer than they were in 1950 by a factor of probably seven to one, but an unacceptable number of injuries and fatalities still plague our streets and highways. And for many the freedom of mobility remains unnecessarily and unacceptably elusive. Dramatic change is coming, though; it’s happening as we meet.
Looking ahead, by 2056, one hundred years after Eisenhower’s visionary leadership on automotive transportation, autonomous vehicles will be virtually ubiquitous. Every car on the road in 2055 or so will be self-driving, revolutionizing the way we conceive of mobility yet again. Self-driving vehicles, enabled by cutting-edge sensors, can travel faster and closer together, cutting commute times, easing congestion, saving fuel costs, and lessening harmful emissions. They can free occupants to work on other tasks in the car, enhancing freedom and productivity. And most importantly, self-driving cars will all but eliminate the more than 90 percent of traffic accidents and fatalities that occur from human error. For you, however, the impact of self-driving cars will be far more personal, be more transformative, and more powerful. Mobility in most of the US today depends on driving. Those who are unable to drive see their opportunities for employment and education diminished. Many people who are blind are forced to rely on costly ride-sharing services or taxies—you know this better than I—or depend on inefficient public transportation and paratransit providers. In rural areas in particular, options are even more limited. This reduced mobility is a major factor contributing to the higher rate of unemployment among the blind.
Auto makers want to help solve this problem. We’re approaching a future in which every blind or visually impaired person can own and operate a car, offering seamless point-to-point service through voice-operated self-driving technology. I’m going to say that one more time: we are approaching a future in which every blind or visually impaired person can own and operate a car offering seamless point-to-point service through voice-operated self-driving technology. [applause] The simple ability to commute by car to work, school, doctor’s appointments, restaurants, cultural opportunities, church, and more—taken for granted by most—will finally, finally be made available to all.
This transformation is already begun. Nearly all major auto companies are hard at work creating the autonomous vehicles of the future, and self-driving technologies like parking assist, lane correction, and automatic braking are already standard features in many new vehicles.
Change is coming, of that we are sure. The only real question is the timetable, the speed of change. In my experience there are two types of politicians: those who are cautious to a fault, hesitant to allow new innovations for fear of the consequences. They’re more concerned with how things have been done in the past than how they’ll be done in the future. They prefer protection to innovation. Perfection is the standard they demand, even if that standard ultimately equals paralysis and stagnation. The second type of politicians are those who embrace the future, who foster the next generation of solutions, and welcome transformative change. These to me—and I suspect to you—are the real heroes. The questions around autonomous vehicles are more political than they are technological. Some states like Nebraska just weeks ago have chosen to lead in the new frontier, allowing manufacturers to test new technologies and eliminating fees on self-driving vehicles. Right here in Florida, State Senator Jeff Brandes and Governor Rick Scott also have been leaders in getting self-driving vehicles on the road by eliminating legal and regulatory obstacles. They’ve ensured that autonomous vehicle technology will be considered in future planning by Florida cities. Other states have opted to go the opposite way: taxing these vehicles, restricting their operation, and putting road blocks in the way of deployment. Developments in Washington and in state capitols over the coming months will determine which approach prevails: the leaning forward approach or the leaning backward approach.
The alliance will always push for innovation and progress, but we cannot do it without your voice. The NFB has been an invaluable partner in the push for standardized, forward-looking, national framework for self-driving vehicles. Those who are blind and visually impaired have too much at stake to allow trepidation and fear to impede progress toward a future that prioritizes mobility for all. We can’t slam the brakes on progress, and we won’t. This is a battle we will fight, and we will win. Your passion—which I’ve seen evidence of in the room today—can make the difference.
I want to close with this call to action for each of you. Make your voices heard where ever you live from Augusta to Honolulu, from Tallahassee to Olympia, and especially in Washington, DC. Remember that line from the movie Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” That should be our theme, it should be our message, and that is our joint calling. Make it known that self-driving vehicles will revolutionize the way you live your life, and dare any politician to deny that simple human urge of free movement. No more excuses: let’s pass the law and liberate mobility. [applause] The future is in our hands; we only need to reach out and take it. I’m proud to say that the nation’s auto makers will fight this fight with you every step of the way. Thank you, and congratulations on a great conference. [applause]