In 2006, Virginia Tech began the daunting task of building a car for blind drivers. The Blind Driver Challenge team at Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory started out in 2009 using a buggy retrofitted with a voice command interface on a closed course. Now the team has moved into the real world, bringing a modified Ford Escape hybrid to the Daytona International Speedway in January during a pre-event for the Rolex 24 endurance race.
According to the Collegiate Times, the vehicle has been tricked out for blind drivers with a nonvisual user interface that can “see” road obstacles, a glove with small vibrating motors on each of the knuckles to transmit directional information, a seat featuring four vibrating motors that transmit vibrations up or down the driver’s leg depending on whether they need to accelerate or decelerate, and a tablet covered with holes that shoot compressed air. When the driver puts a hand over the tablet, they can visualize road obstacles.
The system proved to work well on the Daytona Speedway; blind driver Mark Riccobono drove a 1.5-mile loop, navigating around boxes tossed onto the track, and zooming past another vehicle.
Does this mean that blind drivers will start hitting the streets en masse? Probably not anytime soon, but keep in mind that Virginia Tech’s vehicle has gone from a bare-bones buggy to a modified Escape in just two years. That bodes well for the future.
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