The idea of a blind person being able to drive a car on public roads sounds far-fetched, but only to those who possess the gift of sight. The challenge to develop a non-visual interface by which the blind can interpret and react to road conditions may sound like science fiction, but our FYI reporter, Yolanda Vazquez, has found a group of enterprising students that tackled this problem head-on, with promising results.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: This Ford Escape hybrid, decked out with fancy decals and high-tech equipment, may look like some top-secret vehicle.
JESSE HURDUS: Got two laser scanners, and these are sending signals out scanning the terrain in front of vehicle to try to detect obstacles.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: But for Mark Riccobono, it represents the first step towards unlimited mobility for blind people.
KEVAN WORLEY: This is just one example of our guys saying this is importantâ€”this is meaningful-this is going to change how people think about blindness.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: For the past several months, Riccobono and his colleagues from the national federation of the blind have been testing out the prototype vehicle. As they test what seems to be an impossible notion-can a blind person drive a car??
KEVAN WORLEY: A lot of people say these people in the National Federation of the Blind, they're nuts. And yet now we have another prototype. We're doing exciting things for blind people, which will have spinoff possibilities for everybody else.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: The idea of building an automobile that blind people can navigate on their own is a long-held vision of Dr. Marc Maurer.
DR. MARC MAURER: This is one of the dreams that many of us have thought about.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: The NFB President took his dream one step further and created the blind driver challenge-calling on universities, engineers, and researchers to help them develop new technologies.
DR. DENNIS HONG: When we first decided to take this challenge, a lot of people thought that we were crazy. Sometimes I think we're crazy ourselves, too, even now.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: Dr. Dennis Hong, an associate professor at Virginia Tech, thought they had a good start with an autonomous vehicle students built for the Darpa Grand Challenge but soon realized it would not work.
DR. DENNIS HONG: What NFB wanted was not a vehicle that drives a blind person around, but they wanted a vehicle where a blind person actually makes active decisions and drives so we had to start from scratch.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: So they purchased this red dune buggy to begin their work. It made for a fun time at a blind youth summer camp but the next phase was to develop a real car.
DR. DENNIS HONG: What you see over here is a Ford Hybrid SUV Escape. So it's decked out with different types of sensors, computing equipment.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: Torc engineers and students from Romela, the robotics and mechanisms lab, equipped the vehicle with laser scanners in the front and back to detect objects in the road, mounted cameras on the windshield to identify different lanes, a GPS antenna and an inertial measurement unit that when combined-paints a 3-D picture of the driving environment.
JESSE HURDUS: It's not just the technology, and it's not just getting a blind operator, blind driver in the seat. It's finding that intersection where you can bring both together to do something never been done before.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: All this information is sent to an onboard computer to be processed. It's conveyed to the driver in real time using two non-visual user interfaces. The first one is called drive grip. These are specially-designed gloves with vibrating motors that tell the driver which way to steer. The second device is a speed strip which looks like a seat cushion. It has 4 pairs of vibrating motors in the back and legs to signal rate of speed information.
RYAN BOLBY: Basically it's used to tell the driver what speed it should be going either speed up or slow down.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: For graduate students Paul D' Angio and Ryan Bolby the project helped them tweak their technology but also opened their eyes to blind people's abilities.
RYAN BOLBY: I've never worked with a blind person before personally and so it's just been a blast working with them and seeing what they're capable of and how they can really kind of know what's going on using their senses.
PAUL D'ANGIO: A lot of times I do something work for me, closing my eyes software and then when I actually have them try it out completely different.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: Hong believes working with the blind in developing the technology has been a huge part of their success.
DR. DENNIS HONG: We live with the blind at NFB headquarters in Baltimore, we eat with them, sleep with them, so we need to understand what it is to be blind-to really try to understand it.
DR. MARC MAURER: There is intellect inside the heads of the people you're dealing with. If you take advantage of that intellect you should be able to get more performance out of it than simply using a machine.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: Four years in the making and it all boils down to this one moment. Engineers say they're pretty confident that this technology-laden vehicle can handle the course. Now it's up to the driver to see it through. Here at the famed Daytona International Speedway, Ricobbonno readies himself for the public unveiling of the blind driver challenge.
MARK RICCOBONO: Check check can you hear me?
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: The 34-year old offers up a final wave as he begins to navigate the course. Relying on the drive grip and speed strip, Ricobbono makes his way around the 1.5 mile track. He hits a top speed of 27 miles per hour but there are challenges that test his abilities. A box toss he must maneuver his way through and a moving pass. It takes less than 10 minutes to complete the course. Ricobbono crosses the finish line with the steely determination of a blind man on a mission.
MARK RICCOBONO: Very fulfilling-that the vision of the National Federation of the Blind that we finally be able to put it out in the public and demonstrate the capacity of blind people in driving.
YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: But as this crowded room of blind people will tell you it's more than just the demonstration of a cherished dream, it's the beginning of a whole new world of endless possibilities.
MARK RICCOBONO: The first mile of the journey is frequently the most difficult. Today the blind have completed that mile.