There’s a reason why you never see bats or earthworms or naked mole rats driving, other than because they (generally) have terrible credit ratings and can’t afford cars: their lack of vision. Driving is a very sight-oriented activity, and humans are, of course, very vision-oriented creatures. But what if evolution had taken us down a different, non-sighted path? Would we still have cars? Of course we would. And I think I have an idea what they’d be like.
I’m pretty convinced that building and driving cars is an innate human ability and desire, and no lack of any major sense could have kept us from that goal.
So, with that in mind, let’s imagine an alternate universe where the sense of vision never arose on Earth: no light-sensitive eyespots on paramecia, no compound eyes on insects, and certainly no complex eyes in mammals and cephalopods.
In place of light-based vision, let’s say the senses of touch and hearing were more developed than in our world, and most animals used bat-like echolocation to navigate the world. Bats have proven that such sound-based methods can be used and processed by a mammalian brain at pretty decent rates of travel, and human echolocation is known among blind people even in our universe.
With that in mind, I think we can assume that humans in this alternate, sightless universe would primarily use echolocation and touch to move around, and those would become the primary methods used for driving as well.
I’m going to assume that these alternative humans are as smart and skilled as we are, and they’ve figured out how to design and manufacture all kinds of things, just like we have, just without sight.
Here’s what I think cars for sightless humans would be like:
One thing you may note first is that it sort of resembles an armored car from our world. That’s just co-incidental and sort of a case of convergent evolution, as both vehicles either don’t need or want to limit the window area, and style and design are not a consideration.
There’s no need for windows or exterior design when you will never see, so the car is designed to be simple to construct, primarily, and enclose a decent volume of space: hence the boxy profile. Hinges and fasteners are all external and unhidden, because, again, everything is hidden, at least visually.
The same goes for lighting equipment, or rather the lack thereof; sightless people wouldn’t even be able to conceive of what a headlight does.
Also notable are that all handles are made large and easy to find, surrounded by textured pads and surfaces so people will be able to find them quickly and easily. By the doors is a spring-loaded ‘knee bar’ that makes it easy for a person walking next to the car to know where the door handles are located.
In the place of familiar-to-us lights and windows, the sightless humans’ car employs a system of sonar speaker/emitters and very sensitive microphones. The emitters are roughly where our cars have headlamps, and the receiving microphones, in parabolic, sound-focusing enclosures, are where we’d expect a windshield.
The emitters send out pings, the microphones receive the reflected sound, and the resulting sound-image is sent to the driver’s headset, which you can see here, along with the other crucial driving controls:
The headset and sonar system comprise the primary interface between the driver and the outside world; essentially, it’s just a system that magnifies and enhances the echolocation system humans would be using innately already.
I’ve also added a radar emitter, figuring that maybe the most recent cars in this universe may be using that technology in the automotive space, just like we’re doing today for things like adaptive cruise control, which would be very welcome in a sightless world.
I’m not including any light-based technology like laser rangefinding or lidar, because I don’t think sightless humans would be able to understand or access light-based technologies.
While effective, this likely wouldn’t be enough for certain close obstacles or obstacles and objects around the car, away from the sonic cone emitted by the sonar system.
That’s where the system of feeler arms and sweep arms comes in. A side-to-side sweeping arm in front (and rear) of the car is constantly checking for obstructions or animals or whatever, and if the arm contacts anything, the brakes are automatically actuated.
Feelers mounted at the sides also help to detect obstacles, and when a feeler comes in contact with something, a signal is sent to the ‘hip knockers’—small, padded arms that tap the driver on the side that the feeler encountered an obstacle, letting the driver feel what’s alongside the car.
Other controls for the car (climate controls, radio, heated seats, etc) are controlled via large knobs or buttons with clearly distinct, standardized shapes and locations. Information about the car (speed, warnings, fuel readings) are given audibly over the stereo system or via the touch-matrix braille display on the dash, much like the refreshable braille displays we have in our universe.
While I think this setup would allow sightless humans to drive, to be really effective, the whole infrastructure of roads would need to be different, since, without sight, simple things like lane-keeping and basic navigation would be challenging.
That’s why I think in a universe of sightless humans, cities and streets would be laid out far more rigorously, in very ordered grid layouts, at least as regular as the terrain allows.
Roads would have special textures cut into them in the center of each lane; these textures would make easily identifiable sounds and vibrations when driven over, and would be ‘keyed’ so the sound is only ‘correct’ when traveling in the proper direction in the lane.
Cars would be equipped with a ‘road texture reader brush’ (see diagram) that would make contact with the road patterns and transmit them (with some electronic amplification) to a motorized pad on the driver’s seat.
The seat would transmit the vibrations of the lane pattern direct to the driver’s ass, much in the same way anyone can feel the difference when you’re driving over gravel as opposed to smooth pavement.
If the vibration changed or stopped, the driver would know they’re veering off the center of the lane, and would correct accordingly. If the pattern changed to the wrong-way vibration, they’d know to get out of that lane, pronto.
Also, at intersections, road patterns could be added to signal the driver to slow down, stop, or yield, and information about the particular intersection’s location could be communicated to either the driver, or, on more modern cars, a nav system that could tell the driver the car’s location in X,Y coordinates.
A sightless driver would be doing a significant amount of driving via the seat of their pants, literally.
I do think average speeds would be less than what we’re used to, with something like 45 mph considered a maximum safe speed, so I don’t think sightless-universe cars would be necessarily fast or powerful. I’m imagining engines like 500cc inline-twins, maybe air-cooled and very simple to service, with generous tolerances and clearances and distinctive textures and shapes of parts to make sightless maintenance easier.
If you believe in the infinite universes theory of cosmology, somewhere out there there’s an Earth that evolved a thriving, technological situation without any sorts of eyes. If anyone encounters this world in one of their dimension-hopping travels, please let me know if I’m right about their cars.