A group of new drivers may never watch where they’re going. They won’t need to: Instead, they’ll listen and feel. The National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech are developing a car for the blind, and hope to demonstrate a prototype in January of 2011.
Don’t be fooled: Unlike like the do-it-themselves cars that compete as part of the DARPA Urban Challenge, this car will actually let the blind driver take control and drive, and will require the same quick judgments needed by sighted drivers. The only difference will be how these drivers sense what’s around them.
Instead of looking at the car cutting them off or the pedestrian about to step into traffic, the blind drivers must feel them or hear them. Though the final design is still in the works, the car may communicate an obstacle’s presence by audio instructions, vibrating gloves (called DriveGrip), and puffs of compressed air (called AirPix). AirPix is sort of like a map of the road, a flat board with different air jets corresponding to different obstacles.
This vehicle is the next step in an ongoing project at Virginia Tech. Last summer, mechanical engineering professor Dennis Hong and his team unveiled a buggy that used laser tracking systems, audio commands via headphones, and a vibrating vest to tell blind drivers where to go. Several blind volunteers successfully steered the buggy through an unfamiliar obstacle course (see video below).
Mark Maurer, the president of the National Federation of the Blind, came up with this challenge about a decade ago. Even after this new car’s unveiling next January at the Daytona International Speedway, it may still be a long while before blind drivers take to the road. But, Maurer says, that’s not the point. Instead he wants to show that blindness is a difference rather than an insurmountable impairment. He told The Telegraph:
“We’re exploring areas that have previously been regarded as unexplorable. . . We’re moving away from the theory that blindness ends the capacity of human beings to make contributions to society.”
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