Shared by SmartBrief By David Sears smithsonian.com March 8, 2018
The Sightless Visionary Who Invented Cruise Control
Self-driving cars were far from Ralph Teetor’s mind when he patented his speed control device.
In late 2011, Steve Mahan, executive director of California’s Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, who is legally blind, told Google engineers he’d “like to be the first unlicensed driver to get behind the wheel” of the self-driving vehicle then under development by the company. In October 2015, Mahan got his chance. From the “driver’s seat” of a Firefly, a Google prototype vehicle devoid of steering wheel and foot pedals, he negotiated the streets of Austin, Texas. What was soloing like? “Just perfectly normal,” says Mahan, who drove for 35 years until sight impairment forced him to surrender his driver’s license. “The automated system drives the way that you were taught to drive.”
While experts caution that fully autonomous driving—automobiles operating safely without any direct human intervention—is at least a generation away, its eventual beneficiaries will have a pioneering and completely sightless inventor named Ralph Teetor to thank. Cruise control, Teetor’s 1950s electro-mechanical device that partially automated driving speed, paved the way for more recent digital technologies like GPS driving directions, hazard anticipatory breaking and active lane control.
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