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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 12:48 EDT

High-Tech Car Lets the Blind Drive

July 3, 2010

Researchers at Virginia Tech and have partnered with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) for an upcoming demonstration of a prototype vehicle equipped with new technology that allows a blind person to independently drive a car.

The custom Ford Escape prototype, which uses non-visual interface technology, is scheduled for a public demonstration as part of the pre-race activities at the 2011 Rolex 24 At Daytona on January 29, 2011. A blind person, who has yet to be selected, will drive the prototype on a course near the famed Daytona International Speedway, and will attempt to simulate a typical driving experience.

“Three years ago we accepted the NFB Blind Driver Challenge to develop a vehicle that can be driven by a blind person. The challenge was not the development of an autonomous vehicle that could drive a blind person around, but rather the creation of non-visual interfaces that would allow a blind person to actually make driving decisions,” said Dr. Dennis Hong, Director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech.

Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the Baltimore-based NFB, praised the development, saying the demonstration would  “break down the wall of stereotypes and misconceptions that prevent our full integration into society by showing the public that the blind have the same capacities as everyone else.”

“Virginia Tech has accepted our challenge to apply non-visual interfaces to the task of driving, which has always been wrongly considered impossible for blind people,” Dr. Maurer said.

The vehicle’s non-visual interfaces use sensors that allow a blind driver to maneuver the car based on information transmitted to the driver about his or her surroundings.  These include factors such as whether or not another car or object is nearby, out in front or in an adjacent lane.

“We are not trying to build a technology alone.  We are trying to build a technology that can be combined with an intellect to do things that neither could do alone,” Dr. Maurer said.

Many blind people consider the idea of ever driving a car impossible, but scientists hope the initiative could help challenge such long-held assumptions.

“We’re exploring areas that have previously been regarded as unexplorable,” Dr. Maurer told the Associated Press.

“We’re moving away from the theory that blindness ends the capacity of human beings to make contributions to society.”

The NFB announced its plans for the vehicle demonstration during a news conference on Friday in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Dr. Maurer began thinking about building such a vehicle about ten years ago when he founded the NFB’s research institute.

“Some people thought I was crazy and they thought, ‘Why do you want us to raise money for something that can’t be done?’ Others thought it was a great idea,” he said.

“Some people were incredulous. Others thought the idea was incredible.”

The new vehicle originated, in part, from Virginia Tech’s 2007 entry into the DARPA Grand Challenge, a contest funded by the U.S. Department of Defense to develop driverless vehicles.

Virginia Tech took third place in the competition, having built a self-driving car that used sensors to detect traffic and avoid hitting other vehicles and objects.

On the heels of their success, the team responded to an NFB challenge to help build a car that could be driven by a blind person.

The researchers began by conducting a feasibility study using a dune buggy equipped with sensor lasers and cameras that acted as the “eyes” of the vehicle.  A vibrating vest directed the driver to accelerate, slow down or turn.

Impressed by the results, the NFB urged the team to continue their work, which will be demonstrated next January in Daytona. 

One of the non-visual interfaces on the new custom Ford Escape is called DriveGrip, which uses gloves with vibrating motors on areas that cover the driver’s knuckles. The vibrations let the driver know when and where to make turns.

Another interface, known as AirPix, is a tablet about 4 inches by 5 inches in size with multiple air holes. Compressed air flowing out of the device informs the driver of his or her surroundings, effectively creating a map of objects in the vicinity of the vehicle. It also tells the driver whether another vehicle is in a neighboring lane, or whether there is an obstruction on the road.

Dr. Hong, a Virginia Tech mechanical engineering professor who led the research, said the interface technology could not only someday help blind drivers operate a vehicle, but could also help make conventional cars safer.

He said the researchers hope to someday turn the new technology into a consumer product.

However, “this is not going to be a product until its proven 100 percent safe,” he said.

Advocates for the blind say it will likely be a while before the idea of blind drivers is widely accepted, and years of testing will be needed to prove the new technology is safe and effective.

The latest prototype is part of a more comprehensive mission to change the way people perceive the blind.

Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB’s Jernigan Institute, said when people see him out with his 3-year-old son, they think his son is guiding him.

“The idea that a 3-year-old takes care of me stems from what they think about blindness,” Riccobono told The Associated Press.

“That will change when people see that we can do something that they thought was impossible.”