Blind Driving Tech Nears

We've heard (no pun intended) of hybrid and electric cars designed to make noise, so that blind pedestrians don't get run over by them, but how about a car designed for blind people to drive it? That's what Virginia Tech and the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) have come up with.

The plan is to demonstrate the vehicle, a modified Ford Escape hybrid, at the famous Daytona International Speedway track next year, as part of the pre-race activities at the 2011 Rolex 24 on January 29, 2011. Last summer, the team demonstrated a first-generation prototype, a modified dune buggy.

The NFB issued its Blind Driver Challenge in 2004. Virginia Tech accepted that challenge, and as Dr. Dennis Hong, Director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech, said:
“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 nonvisual interfaces that would allow a blind person to actually make driving decisions. The first-generation prototype was demonstrated with a modified dune buggy at the NFB Youth Slam in the summer of 2009. We are pleased to work with NFB and Grand-Am to demonstrate the second-generation prototype at the Rolex 24 festivities.”

How does it work? Well, here's what the NFB says (naturally, the cues to the driver are all non-visual):

Here's how the vehicle works: The steering wheel is hooked up to a distance monitor that gathers information from laser range finders. Voice software is used to direct the driver every second on exactly how far to turn the steering wheel. For example, the monitor will tell the driver "turn left three clicks." As the driver does that, the monitor makes three clicking noises. A vibrating vest provides cues to follow when accelerating and decelerating. The vest will vibrate in various spots--the back, abdominal area and the shoulders--to relay a variety of commands. When a driver needs to "Hit the brakes!" the entire vest will vibrate to a fare-thee-well!

That is the design of the prototype, however. The Escape will feature a sort of tactile dashboard map that can be read with a person's fingertips to tell them where they are going. Meanwhile, vibrating driver's gloves will replace the vest, and the laser sensor has been improved.

While some might see (no pun intended) the idea of a blind driver as frightening, one thing is certain: a blind driver using this type of system will be paying more attention than a teenager text messaging while driving.

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