Technology & Science

Blind driver to take wheel in demonstration

A prototype vehicle that helps a blind person drive a car independently will be demonstrated by the National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech.

Getting behind the wheel has long been considered impossible for the blind, but that could soon change.

The U.S. 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 manoeuvre a car based on information transmitted to the driver about the surroundings: whether another car or object is nearby, in front or in a neighbouring lane.

Advocates for the blind consider it a "moon shot," a goal similar to U.S. President John F. Kennedy's pledge to land a man on the moon. Researchers hope the project could revolutionize mobility and challenge long-held assumptions about limitations.

Signals for driver

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.

"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 organization, based in Baltimore, Md., announced 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 racetrack and attempt to simulate a typical driving experience.

The vehicle has its roots in Virginia Tech's 2007 entry into the DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition for driverless vehicles funded by the U.S. Defence 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.

From dune buggy to Ford Escape

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.

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 Virginia Tech'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 per cent safe."