Nico Gentry, a 25-year-old manufacturing engineer from Orlando, Florida, is working in the autonomous car industry, where “they’re building the eyes for cars,” as he put it. He works at a LiDAR company called Luminar. LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging; it’s a sensor technology that uses light to measure distance and detect objects, and it’s often called the “eyes” of self-driving cars.
Gentry has always loved cars. “I wanted so badly to get my permit and eventually my driver’s license,” said in a recent interview. But a neurological disorder called nystagmus that affects his eyes means he’s been legally blind since birth.
Instead of learning to drive, when he was just 14 he helped his dad build a 1970 Mustang — what he calls his dream car. “I wanted to drive my dream car. But I realized I wouldn’t be able to do that,” he said.
Last year, Gentry and his dad —who is also an engineer — built a custom electric bicycle that he can use to get around, since he can still partially see — just not enough to safely drive a car. The bike is one of the “little hacks,” as he calls them, that’s important for his mobility independence. Plus it beats pedaling to work on a cheap bicycle with no electric boost.
With a background in supply chain management and an ongoing interest in computer science, he’s all about building the parts that make autonomous vehicles work. But his mission is personal, too, and not just for himself. After his close friend, who was narcoleptic, was killed in a car crash in college, Gentry became more committed to making autonomous vehicles a reality. “If computers and robots were driving, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said of his friend’s fatal crash.
He’s passionate about building a full sensor suite for vehicles to make the safest experience for full autonomy, known as Level 5. LiDAR is part of that. While “you can get pretty far with vision sensors and radar sensors,” LiDAR offers a photon that physically measures how far away everything is, he explained. “You’re getting a real-world measurement.”
Before joining the LiDAR team at Luminar two years ago, he tried out for the obstacle show American Ninja Warrior, where he was able to show he can get around and compete as a blind person.
As a person with a lifelong vision disability, Gentry is keenly aware that his limited self-sufficient transportation options started to “become a pain in the sides,” especially at 15 and 16 years old when others started to pick up their friends on their own and take themselves to the movies.
The advent of Lyft and Uber started to change that. “You have the freedom to pick up milk. Pick someone up on a date because of the ability to press a button on the phone,” he reflected.
With autonomous vehicles, Gentry thinks it’ll be even better.
National Federation of the Blind spokesperson Chris Danielsen explained how the organization representing the blind and low-vision community is also championing autonomous vehicles for mobility independence.
A 2019 resolution for guiding policies of the organization proclaims, “Innovations in autonomous vehicle technology represent a valuable new resource that has extraordinary potential to help blind people gain greater independence and improve transportation options.”
Danielsen said, “Autonomous vehicle technology is all well and good, but it’s only going to work if the technology is designed to be accessible. That means including features like audio and haptic feedback, not just visual interfaces and screens.”
It’s not just beneficial to blind people to incorporate these features. If true autonomy means passengers can zone out and fully distract themselves with a nap or TV show on a backseat screen or smartphone, there should be systems in place to let the vehicle get your attention. “Some tech we use as blind people could be useful,” Danielsen said — like audio alerts when at your destination or seat vibrations to focus your attention to an issue in the car.
Danielsen stressed the importance of situational awareness, knowing if the vehicle is malfunctioning, if there’s a problem, what obstacles the vehicle is encountering, and other information like the route it’s taking, all while in a self-driving vehicle. A self-driving demo at the NFB convention earlier this year with Lyft and Aptiv showed how tactile maps could share information that’s usually conveyed on a screen.
Gentry also notes the benefits of autonomous vehicles bleeding into everyday use. “The way I envision it — why would you own a car?” Especially with self-driving car services from Uber, Lyft, Waymo, and others expected to offer the bulk of access to autonomous vehicles.
Gentry thinks he’ll no longer stand out because he doesn’t have a car and can’t drive. He believes self-driving vehicles can be a better transportation option for anyone, primarily as a way to reduce the number of vehicle incidents.
In his work designing and implementing manufacturing processes for autonomous vehicle sensors, Gentry is always thinking about the end goal: “How do we get people to be independent?” For his fellow low-vision and blind community and others with disabilities that keep them out of the driver’s seat, he said, “I’m trying to get work done here, to get this tech out to them. So they can start using it, start experiencing it.”