Technology has helped the disabled in too many ways to count but the fine people at Virginia Tech, along with the National Federation of the Blind, are in the process of helping the blind do something many thought would be impossible: Next January, they will demonstrate the first street vehicle equipped with technology that allows a blind person to drive independently.
Dr. Dennis Hong, Director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech, said in a statement that the object of the project was not to create a vehicle that would do the driving for a blind person, but allow a blind person to do the driving.
"Three years ago we accepted the NFB Blind Driver Challenge to develop a vehicle that can be driven by a blind person," said Dr. Hong. "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 decision."
The AP reports that back in 2007, Virginia Tech entered the DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition seeking driverless vehicles, which was funded by the Defense Department. The Virginia Tech team came in third with their vehicle that used sensors to perceive traffic and avoid other cars and objects. Following this success, the team decided to take on the challenge from the NFB. Last year they demoed a car that used sensor lasers and cameras to act as the driver's eyes (pictured). A vibrating vest communicated when to speed up, slow down or turn.
On January 29, 2011, a blind person will drive a modified Ford Escape at the Daytona International Speedway before the Rolex 24 race. The modded Ford includes DriveGrip, vibrating gloves that signal when to turn, and AirPix, a tablet that pushes compressed air out of multiple air holes, creating a map of objects around the vehicle.
For more on DriveGrip and AirPix, check out the video below.