Our Driverless Future

Our Driverless Future

A self-driving car pioneer patiently waits for his ride to arrive

Steve Mahan used to be the primary driver in his family. He taught his four kids to drive. If someone ever needed a ride, he was there for them.

So when his eyesight started to deteriorate in his late 30s due to a rare eye disease, Mahan didn't want to give up his driver's license.

"I continued to drive, probably much longer than I should have," Mahan (now 64) told CNN Tech. "[When] people who lose their vision, you almost have to pry their car keys out of their hands."

Mahan, who lives in Morgan Hill, California, now generally makes his way around town on foot. Only a tiny bit of vision remains in his right eye.

But in October 2015, Mahan experienced a brief reprieve from these challenges when a Google engineer asked him to make history in one of its autonomous vehicles. Mahan rode alone in one of Google's self-driving vehicles around Austin, Texas.

"Perfect is about the lowest compliment that I can apply to the technology," said Mahan.

After the historic ride, Austin's mayor referred to the city as "the Kitty Hawk of driverless cars," a reference to the Wright Brothers first flight.

Mahan hasn't since taken another trip in an autonomous vehicle. But he's eager for how the technology could change his life.

"It's hard on your ego, and it's hard on your lifestyle," Mahan said of not being able to drive. "Your world contracts. It suddenly gets very small and you feel very dependent."

The former software consultant walks between two and five miles a day -- listening to audiobooks to pass the time. He mostly relies on the county's special services for the disabled, called paratransit, for longer trips.

But the services can be limited: Rides must be booked by 5 p.m. the day before, restricting spontaneity and flexibility. The service also won't drop him at home during certain hours, requiring him to walk a good distance at night.

Although he's tried ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft, which offer accessible features to the blind, prefers the lower cost of paratransit.

Mahan is a prime example of who may benefit from autonomous vehicles. Experts expect that groups who can't drive -- the young, the old and the disabled -- will especially benefit from the new mobility.

There have been signficant advancements in self-driving technology since Mahan's ride two years ago. Some brands such as Uber, nuTonomy and Waymo have launched pilot tests in Arizona, Boston and Pittsburgh to give the public a chance to ride in the vehicles. But the technology still needs fine-tuning and further testing before it hits the mainstream.

"I'm hoping that I see commercial availability within the next five years," Mahan said. "Just open the car door and tell me if the go button is in the usual place."