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James Liu


Software Engineer, Hobbyist Game Developer, Open Source Enthusiast


Life being Transportationally Disabled

It’s 2019. For decades, the United States has had the world’s most expansive road system. For an American, it is nearly unthinkable to live without a car to ferry yourself from place to place. For example, in my birth city of Marietta, Georgia, it is 3 miles from home to then nearest convinence store, 7 miles from home to high school, and 30+ miles to downtown. With dismal public transit, if you didn’t have a car, you could not work, you could not go to school, you couldn’t go out for fun, you cannot function as a member of society without one.

Then here I am: 25 years old and still asking friends for rides whenever we are out and about. No longer do I live in Georgia, I transplanted myself to the San Francisco Bay Area 4 years ago. For the most part, it’s been a great experience, the public transit isn’t stellar, but it also isn’t non-existent, so it’s a big step up. Whenever I am moving solo, there’s zero issue: everything is within walking or biking distance, and when I need to go far there’s the train in Caltrain, or heavy rail in BART. If I am in a lazy mood and just need to get somewhere without thinking too much, Lyft and Uber are abundantly available. Their tight competition here keeps prices low, so split among all the public transit options available to me, I likely spend less on solo travel than most people spend on their car month to month. 95+% of the time, I never feel like I need to own my own car. This paradigm, however, rapidly falls apart when more people are involved or when moving more than just people is involved, something I’ve become acutely aware of recently.

Two weeks ago, two things coincided that changed my mind about car ownership. For the first time in 4 years, I was looking to buy new furniture for my apartment, and decided to hit up the good old local IKEA. Even for the smallest of items I purchased that day, I couldn’t ask a Lyft driver to carry for me nor could I drag it the hour bike ride home with me. Tacking on an additional $60 delivery fee onto an already expensive furniture purchase doesn’t appear to be much, but it definiitely opened my eyes to what could have been. Later that week was a friend’s birthday party, and I was grabbing a present for them the day of. I picked it up locally on my bike and was happily pedalling home with it. Halfway there, some asshole comes screeching down the road at 80 on a 40mph road, in the bike lane. Nearly got my butt run over, fell off my bike at a decently high speed, smashed the present, and ended up with numerous scrapes and bruises all over. Had I been in a car instead, at least I would have had a seat belt and airbag to cushion the inpact. Was reeling too hard form the fall to get his license plate too. I needed to get a car of my own for my financial and physical wellbeing.

I had gotten my Georgia state driver’s license last October while in for a visit, and had yet to use it to get California one. This wasn’t an easy win. Afflicted with infantile nystagmus syndrome, I have, since birth, had pretty bad eyesight, and even worse reaction times. For the longest time, my parents worried that I wouldn’t be able to drive due to this condition. From age 15, I have been practicing, and only got it shortly after I turned 24. Spent 9 years with a learner’s permit, and even then it took many tries to finally get the full license. During that final test, the vision tests said I came out at 20/60 vision: right at the borderline for Georgia, something that I brushed off at the time.

Last week, I attempted to use said Georgia license to obtain a California one, I could skip the driving test since I already had another state license. It was going fairly smoothly: forgot my documents the first time, had to make several trips to the DMV. With the vision test, it came back as expected: 20/60. Clearly this wasn’t enough. California law requires a more stringent 20/40 to operate vehicles. Every 6 months, due to my condition, I get a full eye examinaiton. Only once in 20+ years did I ever get a 20/40, my vision has never improved past that. Even if I did go through additional (costly) therapy to improve my eyesight, I likely will never have the same level of visual acuity again, and even if I did, it wouldn’t last very long. That day, I got a strict confirmation that I may never drive legally in California.

I don’t blame the law: those requirements exist for a reason, and I feel we are all safer for it. Nor do I curse the physical aliments that afflict me: it’s just something I live with. However, I weep at the lost opprotunities that result from this situation.

Thankfully, we are on the horizon of a new age of autonomous vehicles, and I’ve been working close to the heart of it. At work, I have been working hard to provide the necessary infrastructure to support fully autonomous vehicles. Moving twoards that future, I desperately hope that there will be a day where no human needs to be behind the wheel.

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