Driving While Blind? Maybe with New High-Tech Car

Published: Friday, Jul. 02, 2010
By KEN THOMAS - Associated Press Writer

(original National Federation for the Blind article)

WASHINGTON -

Could a blind person drive a car? Researchers are trying to make that
far-fetched notion a reality.

The National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech plan to demonstrate a
prototype vehicle next year equipped with technology that helps a blind
person drive a car independently.

The technology, called "nonvisual interfaces," uses sensors to let a blind
driver maneuver a car based on information transmitted to him about his
surroundings: whether another car or object is nearby, in front of him or in a neighboring
lane.

Advocates for the blind consider it a "moon shot," a goal similar to
President John F. Kennedy's pledge to land a man on the moon. For many blind
people, driving a car long has been considered impossible. But researchers hope the
project could revolutionize mobility and challenge long-held assumptions
about limitations.

"We're exploring areas that have previously been regarded as unexplorable,"
said Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind.
"We're moving away from the theory that blindness ends the capacity of human beings
to make contributions to society."

The Baltimore-based organization announced its plans for the vehicle
demonstration at a news conference Friday in Daytona Beach, Fla.

A blind person, who has not yet been chosen, will drive the vehicle on a
course near the famed Daytona race track and attempt to simulate a typical
driving experience.

Maurer first talked about building an automobile that the blind could drive
about a decade ago when he launched the organization'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," Maurer said. "Some people were incredulous. Others thought the idea was
incredible."

The vehicle has its roots in Virginia Tech's 2007 entry into the DARPA Grand
Challenge, a competition for driverless vehicles funded by the Defense
Department's research arm. The university's team won third place for a self-driving
vehicle that used sensors to perceive traffic, avoid crashing into other
cars and objects and run like any other vehicle.

Following their success, Virginia Tech's team responded to a challenge from
the National Federation of the Blind to help build a car that could be
driven by a blind person. Virginia Tech first created a dune buggy as part of a
feasibility study that used sensor lasers and cameras to act as the eyes of
the vehicle. A vibrating vest was used to direct the driver to speed up, slow
down or make turns.

The blind organization was impressed by the results and urged the
researchers to keep pushing. The results will be demonstrated next January
on a modified Ford Escape sport utility vehicle at the Daytona International Speedway
before the Rolex 24 race.

The latest vehicle will use nonvisual interfaces to help a blind driver
operate the car. One interface, called DriveGrip, uses gloves with vibrating
motors on areas that cover the knuckles. The vibrations signal to the driver when
and where to turn.

Another interface, called AirPix, is a tablet about half the size of a sheet
of paper with multiple air holes, almost like those found on an air hockey
game. Compressed air coming out of the device helps inform the driver of his
or her surroundings, essentially creating a map of the objects around a
vehicle. It would show whether there's another vehicle in a nearby lane or an
obstruction in the road.

A blind person, who has not yet been chosen, will drive the vehicle on a
course near the famed Daytona race track and attempt to simulate a typical
driving experience.

Dr. Dennis Hong, a mechanical engineering professor at Virginia Tech who
leads the research, said the technology could someday help a blind driver
operate a vehicle but could also be used on conventional vehicles to make them safer
or on other applications.

Hong, who directs the school's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory, said they
hope to turn the technology into a consumer product. But he added, "This is
not going to be a product until its proven 100 percent safe."

Advocates for the blind say it will take time before society accepts the
potential of blind drivers and that the safety of the technology will need
to be proven through years of testing. But more than anything, they say it's part
of a broader mission to change the way people perceive the blind.

Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB's Jernigan Institute, said
when he walks down the street with his 3-year-old son, many people might
think he, as a blind person, is being guided by his son.

"The idea that a 3-year-old takes care of me stems from what they think
about blindness," Riccobono said. "That will change when people see that we
can do something that they thought was impossible."

Coverage by other sites:
Blind Drivers Could Soon Hit the Road - Fox News
Group to show that car can be driven by the blind - Yahoo! News
Driving for the Blind? Researchers Hope So - CBS News

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