Prototype car with tactile feedback challenges the blind to drive (update)

We can already imagine just what you're thinking -- the blind have no place behind the wheel, right? As it turns out, though, cars can steer themselves these days, so there technically no reason why (save a few laws) a computer-assisted blind person couldn't drive. Virginia Tech's RoMeLa successfully tested a laser-guided dirt buggy last year (see above), and teaming with the National Federation of the Blind this week, it intends to demonstrate a pair of full-sized augmented SUVs next year. In January 2011, the Daytona racetrack will play host to two heavily customized Ford Escape, filled with "nonvisual interfaces" like a vibrating vest and gloves (dubbed DriveGrip), a steering wheel that provides audio cues on when to turn, and a tablet device covered with tiny holes (called AirPix) that represents the road and obstacles around the vehicle with jets of compressed air. Even with all those gizmos, we understand if you still might not want your neighbors barreling down the street, but let's face it -- plenty of us sighted folks are just as visually impaired. Video and full press release after the break.

Update: Dr. Dennis Hong of RoMeLa just informed us that though the auditory steering wheel was part of the laser-guided buggy, it won't appear on the Ford Escape. He also relates that letting the blind drive is merely a short-term goal -- the big picture here is to develop new interfaces for the blind, and safer transportation technology for all.

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National Federation of the Blind to Debut Car That Can Be Driven Independently by the Blind at Rolex 24

NFB, Virginia Tech, and Grand-Am Form Historic Partnership to Advance Innovative Technology

Daytona Beach, Florida (July 2, 2010): The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, College of Engineering (Virginia Tech) announced today that they have partnered to demonstrate the first street vehicle equipped with technology allowing a blind person to drive independently. The vehicle is scheduled to be demonstrated to the public as part of the pre-race activities at the 2011 Rolex 24 At Daytona. The Ford Escape, equipped with nonvisual interface technology, will be driven by a blind individual who will navigate part of the famed Daytona International Speedway course on January 29, 2011.

Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, said: "The National Federation of the Blind is dedicated to the development of innovative technology to improve the lives of blind Americans, and Virginia Tech has accepted our challenge to apply nonvisual interfaces to the task of driving, which has always been wrongly considered impossible for blind people. But we are not trying to build a technology alone. We are trying to build a technology that can be combined with an intellect to do things that neither could do alone. We are pleased to have the opportunity to demonstrate the fruits of our efforts before the automobile enthusiasts and racing fans at the Rolex 24 At Daytona. This demonstration will break down the wall of stereotypes and misconceptions that prevent our full integration into society by showing the public that the blind have the same capacities as everyone else. Our only challenge is access to the information we need."

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."

"GRAND-AM is honored to lend its support to this intriguing-and inspirational-project," said GRAND-AM Spokesman Herb Branham. "The Rolex 24 At Daytona is a showcase for the latest automobile technology, making this race an appropriate backdrop for the first public demonstration of a car that can be driven by the blind."

The NFB Jernigan Institute-the only research and training facility on blindness operated by the blind-has challenged universities, technology developers, and other interested innovators to establish NFB Blind Driver Challenge (BDC) teams, in collaboration with the NFB, to build interface technologies that will empower blind people to drive a car independently. The purpose of the NFB Blind Driver Challenge is to stimulate the development of nonvisual interface technology. Undergraduate students at Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, under the direction of Professor Dennis Hong, have been actively working with the NFB on the challenge. During the summer of 2009 the Virginia Tech BDC team worked with blind students in the NFB Youth Slam on the first-generation prototype of a blind-drivable vehicle, and many of the NFB students had the opportunity to drive using the first generation of the nonvisual interface. Dr. Hong and his students are currently working with the NFB on the second-generation prototype vehicle, which will integrate new and improved versions of the first-generation nonvisual interface technologies into a Ford Escape.