WASHINGTON -- Anil Lewis was behind the wheel of his Ford Mustang convertible on a sunny Atlanta day in 1988, when he nearly hit a pedestrian who appeared in a crosswalk ahead of him, seemingly out of nowhere.
It was then Lewis realized his deteriorating eyesight would soon end his days behind the wheel. Now 53 and legally blind, the prospect of fully autonomous vehicles gives him hope of returning to the road on his own.
"If it's designed correctly, if the vehicles are accessible," said Lewis, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute, which works to develop technologies and services that help blind people. "It's going to create an improved ability to travel that doesn't currently exist."
The revolution in self-driving cars holds promise for a segment of the population that thought they'd never be able to operate a vehicle: blind people. Advocates for the estimated 1.3 million legally blind people in the U.S., and millions more with other disabilities, have joined automakers and technology companies in lobbying Congress to help spur the roll out of self-driving vehicles.
A House panel on Wednesday approved the first legislation on driverless cars, and advocates for the blind have a special set of concerns: They want accessibility incorporated into car design and states to steer clear of laws that would prohibit the blind from one day sitting in the driver's seat.
They're up against a regulatory and industry paradigm that assumes drivers see the road ahead. Policymakers and companies working on fully self-driving vehicles -- still many years away from being widely available -- are only beginning to tackle new challenges to ensure that the blind can benefit, and some roadblocks are already emerging.
Alex Epstein, senior director of digital strategy at the National Safety Council, says autonomous vehicle technology still has a long way to go until vehicles don't have a steering wheel or brake, and the driver can be removed from the equation.
"In theory, the concept is a wonderful idea," Epstein said. "The question is how does the auto industry and the tech industry get to that place."
The National Federation of the Blind has begun airing radio ads as part of a new coalition of representing hearing-impaired people, seniors, carmakers and Securing America's Future Energy, an energy-independence advocate. It's also joined the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, an advocacy group that represents Ford Motor Co., Volvo Cars, Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo unit, Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc.
The auto and tech industry's vision of robo-taxi fleets could improve access to employment and education that have long been among the blind federation's top policy priorities, said spokesman Chris Danielsen. The group is concerned about state policies that could limit the blind's access to autonomous rides in the future.