Driving while blind? Maybe, with new high-tech car

Jul 02, 2010 By KEN THOMAS , Associated Press Writer
This handout photo, taken in 2009, provided by the National Federation of the Blind shows Addison Hugen, who is blind student participating in the 2009 YouthSlam, a science camp for blind students, in College Park, Md. The National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech say they plan to demonstrate a prototype vehicle next year equipped with technology that would help a blind person drive a car. Called nonvisual interface technology, it allows a blind person make driving decisions that let them to drive independently. (AP Photo/National Federation of the Blind)

(AP) -- 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 was announcing its plans for the vehicle demonstration at a news conference Friday in Daytona Beach, Fla.

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.

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."

Explore further: Switzerland tops innovation rankings for fourth year

More information: National Federation of the Blind: http://www.nfb.org/nfb/Default.asp

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El_Nose
not rated yet Jul 02, 2010
Not trying to be mean - and i hope it doesn;t come across as ilthoughtout

To my casual observation - and I am not a sociology expert or anything - but being blind is a serious handicap in today's society.. heck almost all previous societies as well...

but my point is very few people who suffer a severe visual acuity issues are high earners in our society -- for that matter most people in our society aren't high earners. But we are talking about creating a vehicle that if it was a geo metro would have enough sensors and computing equipment to push the price up to 40k.

I say tackle the problem for all vehicles - or get Congress to mandate a lot of the features that you are designing into regular cars so the price of a vehicle you are offering is going to be resonable.

Are we really going to see these enhancements in a vehicle priced under 10.5k ??
trekgeek1
not rated yet Jul 02, 2010
I think that it seems like a messy endeavor. There is so much information to be processed and conveyed to the driver that it really isn't practical. A simple case is lane maintenance. Often while driving a freeway, the lanes abruptly swerve uniformly to one direction into a makeshift temporary lane so that maintenance can be carried out. I have good eyes and the temporary road lines are difficult to distinguish from the painted out original lines. The level of computer vision analysis and proximity sensors necessary to make this doable for the blind is so advanced that we should just make the vehicle entirely autonomous. If your car can do the hard part ( lane and obstacle detection), why even have a driver do the easy part? The car can do that too.
MorituriMax
not rated yet Jul 02, 2010
"Could a blind person drive a car?"

No. Let's move on to subjects that aren't patently retarded. There I said it, a politically incorrect word for a politically correct disaster just waiting to happen.

I don't want blind people driving, cooking with deep fat fryers, adjusting the fan belts on running cars, flying jumbo jets full of soon-to-be victims, or joining the military and shooting guns at people, their own or the enemies.

Some limits are not meant to be tested. Fine, develop a treatment that can cure their blindness, but until you do, I don't want them doing any of the above any more than I want mute people directing airplane traffic from a control tower.
rgw
5 / 5 (1) Jul 03, 2010
The end result of this research is not to enable blind people to drive. The purpose is to ASAP remove the control of vehicles from the hands and minds of idiots. The operation of vehicles in the US has degenerated into chaos flavored with madness. The majority of drivers who know and try to obey the traffic laws are under constant and deadly attack from a significant minority of drivers who neither know nor obey traffic laws or even the precepts of sanity. Traffic deaths per year in the US have lessened while the population has doubled, but the dead still pile up at a rate of nearly 40,000 per year. The injuries are in the millions. It is past time to end this slaughter. Mass murder in the name of personal 'freedom'. Allow technology to totally control traffic, especially in urban areas. People who put their entire life secrets on facebook should not be concerned with loss of 'freedom' caused by allowing technology to take them home safely.
davidlfields
not rated yet Jul 21, 2010
The issue at hand with this and other new technologies is the "freedom" spoken of by rgw. In modern America especially, the concept of relinquishing control of the vehicle to a computer is sociologically impossible.

Even when the computer is driving all vehicles and plotting the fastest route, most modern American drivers are not willing to turn over the control.

I am legally blind and have never driven. I would certainly love the chance to be able to transport myself anywhere I wanted in my own transportation at any time I choose. That can only happen however, if ALL vehicles are on the same system. One individual who goes "off-grid" would completely negate the good a computer-controlled system might offer.

The shear number of cars on the roads in America would make this tech impossible to implement in the near future. American have not jumped on the Segway marked as anticipated for many of the same reasons.