Recent technological developments are presenting increasing opportunities for blind and vision impaired people to interact with the world in ways not previously possible. However, many everyday acts we take for granted such as driving a car remain out of reach. That’s well on the way to changing thanks to a development by a team of students at the Virginia Tech University, who have designed a car that allows blind and visually impaired people to take the wheel and drive.

The Blind Driver Challenge team from Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory have retrofitted a four-wheel dirt buggy that uses audio cues, a tactile map and laser range finders among other technology to guide vision impaired drivers as they control the vehicle.

Earlier models of the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle swayed more towards being fully autonomous (as seen in the DARPA Urban Challenge) so the student team changed their approach to the design to focus on giving a vision impaired motorist total control of the vehicle.

With the objective of presenting a blind driver with the same type of control behind the wheel as a sighted person came many challenges. For example, the laser sensors scanning the surrounding environment of the vehicle need to relay large amounts of information back to the driver both quickly and accurately. To achieve this, the team used a number of non-visual interface technologies. These include a click counter steering wheel with audio cues, a vibrating vest worn by the driver for speed feedback, spoken commands for direction and a tactile map using compressed air to relay information about the terrain surrounding the vehicle.

The prototype was recently taken for its first spin around a closed course at the Virginia Tech campus by Wes Majerus, an access technology specialist with the National Federation of the Blind’s Jernigan Institute in Baltimore.

According to Majerus, the experience was not only “liberating” but he also found the car’s instructions to be more precise than that of a human counterpart.

This translates into this type of technology possibly being used to help elderly drivers, or train new ones.

Plans are underway to continue developing the concept and replace the dirt buggy vehicle with an all–electric car, reducing the vibration that can hinder the laser sensor as well as presenting a benefit to the environment.

While those involved in the project are realistic about the long road ahead for both the development of the vehicle and the changing of laws that prohibit blind people from driving, perhaps Mark Riccobono of the Jernigan Institute puts it best: “Blind people have brains, the capacity to make decisions. Blind people want to live independent lives. Why would they not want to drive?”

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