Driving while blind?
WASHINGTON – Getting behind the wheel has long been considered impossible for the blind. That could soon change.The National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech plan to demonstrate a prototype vehicle next year equipped with technology that helps a blind person drive a car independently.The technology, called “non-visual interfaces”, uses sensors to let a blind driver maneouvre a car based on information transmitted to him about his surroundings: whether another car or object is nearby, in front of him or in a neighbouring lane.Advocates for the blind consider it a “moon shot”, a goal similar to President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the moon. For many blind people, driving a car long has been considered impossible. But researchers hope the project could revolutionise mobility and challenge long-held assumptions about limitations.“We’re exploring areas that have previously been regarded as unexplorable,” said Dr Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind. “We’re moving away from the theory that blindness ends the capacity of human beings to make contributions to society.”The organisation, based in Baltimore, Maryland, announced plans for unveiling the vehicle in January, at a news conference yesterday in Daytona Beach, Florida.A blind person, who has not yet been chosen, will drive the vehicle on a course near the famed Daytona race track and attempt to simulate a typical driving experience.Maurer first talked about building an automobile that the blind could drive about a decade ago when he launched the organisation’s research institute.“Some people thought I was crazy and they thought, ‘Why do you want us to raise money for something that can’t be done?’ Others thought it was a great idea,” Maurer said. “Some people were incredulous. Others thought the idea was incredible.”The vehicle has its roots in Virginia Tech’s 2007 entry into the DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition for driverless vehicles funded by the Defence Department’s research arm. The university’s team won third place for a self-driving vehicle that used sensors to perceive traffic, avoid crashing into other cars and objects and run like any other vehicle.Following their success, Virginia Tech’s team responded to a challenge from the National Federation of the Blind to help build a car that could be driven by a blind person. Virginia Tech first created a dune buggy as part of a feasibility study that used sensor lasers and cameras to act as the eyes of the vehicle.A vibrating vest was used to direct the driver to speed up, slow down or make turns.The blind organisation was impressed by the results and urged the researchers to keep pushing. The results will be demonstrated in January on a modified Ford Escape sport utility vehicle. (AP)