Car lets the blind take the wheel

Blacksburg, VA – Blind people in Virginia are getting the chance to drive, thanks to a specal dirt buggy developed by students at the Virginia Tech College of Engineering.

The retrofitted four-wheel dirt buggy developed by the Blind Driver Challenge team  uses laser range finders, an instant voice command interface and other innovative technologies to guide blind drivers as they steer, brake, and accelerate.

“It was great!” said Wes Majerus of Baltimore, the first blind person to drive the buggy on a closed course at the Virginia Tech campus this summer. Majerus is an access technology specialist with the National Federation of the Blind’s Jernigan Institute.

Rather than producing a fully-autonomous vehicle, the team designed the vehicle so that the blind motorist has complete control of the driving process, as any sighted driver would.

This approach led to new challenges, including how to effectively convey the high bandwidth of information from the laser sensors scanning the vehicle’s surrounding environment to the driver fast enough and accurate enough to allow safe driving. As a result, the team developed non-visual interface technologies, including a vibrating vest for feedback on speed, a click counter steering wheel with audio cues, spoken commands for directional feedback, and a unique tactile map interface that utilizes compressed air to provide information about the road and obstacles surrounding the vehicle.

Once the technology is perfected, laws now barring the blind from driving and public perception must be changed, Riccobono said.

The team is already planning major changes to the technology, including replacing the dirt buggy vehicle with a fully electric car. The all-electric vehicle would reduce the vibration which can cause problems to the laser sensor, and will provide clean electric power for the computing units.

The team will bring the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle to the National Federation of the Blind’s Youth Slam summer camp event held July 26 to August 1 in College Park, Md.