The thought of having blind drivers on the road seems like a disaster waiting to happen, but the Blind Driver Challenge team at Virginia Tech's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory aims to safely put the blind in control of steering wheels. The team's retrofitted buggy, which has been tested by blind volunteers on a closed course at Virginia Tech, uses a voice command interface, laser range finders, and other sensory technology to guide drivers in the right direction.
While early models of the buggy were mostly automated, the latest version puts drivers in total control thanks to a vibrating vest that provides speed feedback, a click counter steering wheel with audio cues, spoken directional commands, and a tactile map interface that uses compressed air to give information about the road and potential obstacles. Next-generation models of the buggy will be all-electric to reduce potential vibrations that disturb the vehicle's laser sensor.
The buggy will be shown off at the National Federation of the Blind's Youth Slam summer camp in Maryland and at a National Federation of the Blind-sponsored parade in Washington D.C. Still, there are still many obstacles preventing blind drivers from hitting the road. Public perception is the biggest factor, but technology used in the buggy must also be perfected. A misspoken directional command or vibrating vest malfunction won't just be an annoyance; it could lead to a life-threatening situation.