Thinking Tech

Car tech might allow the blind to drive

Posting in Design

Right before the start of the annual Daytona Rolex 24 race, a blind driver amazed a packed crowd of racing fans by successfully steering a rigged Ford Escape around a racetrack while dodging boxes that were being thrown at it from a van.

A couple years ago a blind man got behind the wheel of a vehicle and drove it safely around an test course.

Upon finishing the course, Mark Riccobono, the executive director of the National Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute, hailed the accomplishment as historic. Back in 2004, he had issued the Blind Driver Challenge as a way of reaching out to universities research institutions to produce a car suitable for blind people. The challenge lead to an ongoing collaboration with researchers at Virginia Tech University, who developed the vehicle.

While the moment marked a groundbreaking achievement, it still was a relatively modest statement considering how much progress is still needed to allow the blind to legally drive. The turns and stops were executed in a closed parking lot and the custom-built dirt buggy prototype was more akin to a go-cart than an actual street car that can handle the rigors of day-to-driving. But a couple weeks ago, right before the start of the annual Daytona Rolex 24 race, Riccobono amazed a packed crowd of racing fans by successfully steering a rigged Ford Escape around a racetrack while dodging boxes that were being thrown at it from a van.

Dennis Hong's robotics and mechanisms lab team had devised the demonstration in a way that showed the public that the driver was actually reacting to obstacles with the help of a non-visual user interface that gave the driver instantaneous feedback as road conditions changed.

"If we just put boxes on the track, people might think we planned the route," he told Inside Science News Service.

Riccobono's vehicle got up to 25 mph and he maneuvered around every obstacle thrown at him without a single hitch. He even passed up the van.

Hong's team designed the Ford Escape's driver's non-visual interface by adapting technology from an earlier self-driving robot car prototype that had earned them a third place prize of $500,000 in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's or DARPA Urban Challenge.

Both vehicles are equipped with:

  • A laser light detection and ranging system that scans for other vehicles and road obstacles.
  • A pair of cameras mounted on the windshield to track the driver's position in relation to the road, lights and stop signs.
  • A GPS system.
  • A measurement device that monitored the car's speed and direction in case of GPS failure.

The various sensing technologies are combined to create a computerized model of the vehicle's surroundings. But for the Blind Driver Challenge, the team added nonvisual interfacing technologies that can quickly and seamlessly relay all that information so that the driver can react and make on-the-fly decisions.

These include:

  • SpeedStrip, a system of cushioned, vibrating motors aligned down the back and legs of the driver to signal how much the driver needs to accelerate or slow down.
  • DriveGrip, wired up gloves that tells the driver whether to turn left or right and also how sharp the turn needs to be. This is communicated by sending vibrating pulses to the driver's knuckles in a specific pattern.
  • The research team is also working on an interface they're calling AirPix. The iPad-shaped device is comprised of tiny holes that blow various patterns of compressed air to illustrate road conditions. The driver places his hands over the device to decipher what the picture looks like.

And in case you are wondering, the National Federation of the Blind is really hoping that their efforts will lead to a vehicle that can be safely and legally operated by a blind person.

According to the Blind Driver Challenge website:

"We fully expect that the Blind Driver Challenge™ will ultimately result in the development of nonvisual interface technology for a vehicle that can be safely driven by blind people.  We do not know when such an interface will be finalized.  We are in the process of creating the second prototype of a vehicle outfitted with nonvisual interfaces, and many more such prototypes may have to be generated in order to produce interface technology that will permit a blind person to drive with the same degree of safety and reliability as a sighted person.  Only at the point that such an interface is perfected will we ask society to consider granting driving privileges to the blind."

As a person with fully functional eyesight, I'll admit it's hard to fathom a technology that can give a blind person the kind of highly acute road awareness that is necessary to navigate the hazards encountered by drivers every day. But if anything, Riccobono and the Virginia Tech team has proved that we are only limited by what we can see in our minds.

Photo: Blind Driver Challenge

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure