Students at Virginia Tech have found a way to help the blind get behind the wheel (Virginia Tech).

    by: Kirk Seaman | AOL Autos

    Students at Virginia Tech University have succeeded in breaking down another barrier for the disabled: Building a vehicle that allows the blind to drive.

    Virginia Tech's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory developed a driver-assist system that uses laser range finders, an instant voice-command interface and a host of other cutting-edge technologies to guide blind drivers as they steer, brake and accelerate. The new system was put to good use last year at a summer camp where 20 blind and low-vision teens were able to take the wheel of a retrofitted dune buggy and navigate a course completely on their own.

    "Although we are in the early stages of testing, the National Federation of the Blind -- which spurred the project -- considers the vehicle a major breakthrough for independent living of the visually impaired," said Dr. Dennis Hong, faculty adviser on the project.

    Hong saw similarities between the technology used in Virginia Tech’s DARPA Urban Challenge, a military vehicle research and development program, and the requirements of the NFB’s Blind Driver Challenge.

    "Our original goal was to simply make the vehicle accessible to the blind," noted Hong. "After speaking with the NFB, we decided to make a vehicle that could be independently operated by a blind driver."

    High-Tech Equipment for Low-Vision Drivers

    By the numbers:

    1.3 million: Legally blind people in the United States
    93,600: School-age children
    10,800: Deaf and blind school-age children
    787,691: Blind seniors, 65 and older
    2.4 million: Projected number of blind seniors by 2030
    30 percent: Number of employed working-age legally blind adults
    $916,000: Cost of support and unpaid taxes for one blind person's lifetime
    $4 billion: Estimated annual costs of blindness to the federal government

    Source: National Federation of the Blind

    As expected, the buggy is packed with a host of equipment including a laser range finder, a Hall effect sensor, and a string potentiometer. "The laser range finder acts as the vehicle's eyes," said Hong. "It sends out a laser beam many times a second and measures the reflected signal to locate obstacles and lane markers such as curbs. The Hall effect sensor determines the vehicle speed and the string potentiometer measures the steering angle."

    The system communicates with the driver via a series of non-visual interfaces. A tactile vest attached to the inside of the driver's seatbelt provides information to regulate speed and warn of obstacle proximity. An audio feedback system uses headphones to instruct where to turn and audible clicks tell the driver how sharply he is turning the wheel.

    The system's performance can be measured by the smiles after campers took a turn behind the wheel. Kim Wenger was one of the student team leaders who participated in the event. "The Blind Driver Track was an interactive experience with hands-on activities that took the kids through the entire engineering design process," she said. "They learned how to change a tire, were able to get their hands on engine parts to observe how pistons operate, and how to be a responsible driver by learning road signs, giving directions, and taking a portion of an actual driving test."

    The week culminated in driving time for the students using the vehicle in a parking lot. "This was the best part of the entire week because the students and mentors were truly appreciative and excited to drive, either for their first time or for the first time in many years," Wenger said. "They all felt a sense of freedom and independence."

    "It was an amazing experience," enthused 15-year-old Ishaan Rostogi after his drive in July. "It's going to be great for all blind people across America." He said he now has hope that one day he might earn his driver's license -- something he never before imagined possible.

    Reaching Beyond Sight

    The technology developed for the Blind Driver Challenge is about more than just enabling the blind to drive. "Aside from giving the blind greater independence and a sense of empowerment, these blind-access technologies could have far-reaching benefits,” said Hong.

    Examples of where these technologies might also be used include collision mitigation for automobiles, assisting elderly drivers, and even training new drivers. The system's non-visual aids could be used to enhance the safety and capability of airplane pilots, who operate in an environment saturated with visual information.

    "Any task that requires fast and precise responses to a large amount of data in a short amount of time can be improved by the devices developed through the BDC," said Hong.

    The next step for the Blind Driver Challenge project is to implement these technologies in an actual automobile. "All of these driver interfaces will be incorporated into this vehicle. The goal is to allow a blind driver to operate the vehicle independently in a real driving environment, including lane detection and object identification,” said Hong.

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    1 - 20 of 104 Comments
    consultcaj Apr 20, 2010 9:41 AM
    This is a fantastic breakthrough that will change so many peoples lives in the future. I guess you critics just can't imagine yourself ever needing this technology. Pray that you're right.
    Report This
    halc1 Apr 10, 2010 9:19 PM
    I hope I'm not the only one who thinks this is too stupid for words.
    Report This
    ccolotexan Apr 10, 2010 8:03 PM
    just what we don't need,
    Report This
    hdstyle1957 Apr 10, 2010 6:34 PM
    How the hell are they going to find the car? Sorry my bad.
    Report This
    rhiannon426m Apr 10, 2010 6:11 PM
    I am paraplegic and until 5yrs ago I was a passenger , having to ask for rides and public transportation it sucked!!! The day I got my drivers license was probably the best day of my life!! Freedom!! I drive with Hand controls and drive a car not a van..I love it! (Im 40 Yrs old) Technolgy can be a blessing and a double edged sword..I completely understand the need for independence, but at what price? I like the concept but I agree, not sure of it's actuall practicality and safety.. thnx
    Report This
    pbihomes Apr 10, 2010 5:58 PM
    i liked the idea of letting them drive in an empty lot. you could tell them they are driving thru new york play a cd of sirens and hornes one day and then the next day tell them they flew to CA and are driving thru the redwood trees or driving on the beach. put in a cd with surf tell them they are in a drive in and play a cd of a movie. they will love it.
    Report This
    usn63677 Apr 10, 2010 4:15 PM
    WOW just what we need. Now ya got to worry if the driver in back of you is BLIND DRUNK HIGH ON DRUGS TEXTING TALKING ON CELL OR SLEEPY. Why dont they invent a car that is so safe a DRUNK DRIVER CANNOT KILL INNOCENT KIDS OR PEOPLE
    Report This
    enigmaticmatter5 Apr 10, 2010 3:58 PM
    Lizord69... you are too FUNNY!!! take your soapbox somewhere else cus the laughter your rant has caused me is driving me to tears.
    Report This
    lizord69 Apr 10, 2010 3:48 PM
    YOU IGNORANT PEOPLE........................MY GRANDSON IS BLIND AND HE CAN DO ABOUT ANYTHING. He has his own band at the age of 14 and he is the drummer. He can text, play basketball, about anything that a person with sight can do. He wants to drive so bad. Maybe if any of you ignorant jerks had to see how hard it is for them you would have something better to do then to make fun of them. I see every day how hard his struggles are. He has accomplished so much more then alot of kids his age. He is strong willed and can do anything except DRIVE. As for Kenebar69 how dare you say that about God and the blind. You speak of God in the same sentence when you are mean about the handicapped. And to Natmartt, screw you how dare you compare the blind to insects. I would put my blind grandson up against any of you smart mouth morans in any game any music.........................anything anyday any time. He is awsome and he is smart and I can tell you he will Drive someday. Do any of you idiots realize that this is in the first stages. To busy knocking something good before it even happens.
    Report This
    foakingaah Apr 10, 2010 3:38 PM
    GPS For The Lost Drivers Is" Technology" that affords one without knowing/having the the abilities to know how to get from point a to point b..... back up cameras as well as automatic trans,.Abs brakenig systems day running lights see drivers blind or not need technology inhancements some here suffer from seprate but equal syndrome or narrowmindedness an even more regressive condition
    Report This
    enigmaticmatter5 Apr 10, 2010 3:36 PM
    Great. Now we'll not only have to deal with fat women from MADD but fat women from MABD (Mothers against Blind Driving) invading our schools and streets and god knows where else they go and talk about their tragic loss. Everyone here is in an uproar over something that WONT EVER become commercial. I mean can you imagine the insurance premiums for these vehicles and drivers? Let alone the fact that a vehicle modified to these standards will undoubtedly be VERY expensive. On a closed course this works but in the real world having to concentrate on the click of the wheel the beeps and the tones PLUS the sound of traffic in general will be sensory overload for the blind driver. VERY BAD IDEA.
    Report This
    ssc60 Apr 10, 2010 3:29 PM
    While I think that the technology being developed to allow a visually impaired person the ability to drive, is all great and wonderful, it will never come to fruition. Let me explain further, the cost of manufacturing a car for a blind person to drive would be much greater than a "normal" car. For example, a single white cane for my son costs $38.00. The screen reader software he needs to use the computer is $895.00, his geometry book cost $1800.00, and so on. So my applause goes to those students who engineered this single car, my joy to those visually impaired students who were able to drive but I don't think my son will ever be driving a car to school or on a first date.
    Report This
    ectullis Apr 10, 2010 3:13 PM
    Watch it, you might get blindsided.
    Report This
    missimin Apr 10, 2010 3:08 PM
    I would trust blind drivers over texting/cell phone drivers.
    Report This
    jmetcalf1955 Apr 10, 2010 3:08 PM
    cars to let the blind drive.... wow, maybe even a democrat can drive now 'eh?
    Report This
    ladybugmom3 Apr 10, 2010 2:34 PM
    What is wrong with all you people? Are you crazy or just so selfish you can't understand that blind and visually impaired people have the right to whatever technology comes up with to improve their lives? There was a time when no one would have ever thought that a blind person could use a computer or work in an office job. Those things have happened because of technology. Instead of SEEING what a great job these people have done, you resort to the same old, dumb blind jokes. Just shows there is more than one way to be BLIND.
    Report This
    joebudgie Apr 10, 2010 2:33 PM
    OK, you have devices that allow a blind person to safely navigate a "closed course" with no other traffic, pedestrians or animals crossing accross their path. Put that blind person in the car 600 miles from home in a strange city and he or she "forgets" the path they want to follow. Will the GPS take them back home. Why are they driving anyway? It certainly isn't to enjoy the scenery. Get those scientests busy researching the repair of the damaged eye and brain connections. Forget the electronic toys. They will only work under carefully controlled conditions.
    Report This
    zacatak6487 Apr 10, 2010 2:13 PM
    Why not just put them in a toy car at a local pizza party place and tell them they are driving on the highway!
    Report This
    gr8bsn Apr 10, 2010 2:01 PM
    "THEY DIDNT HAVE THE OPTION TO BE BLIND SO LAY OFF THEM." --- Not laying on them. Simply stating the point that cars have transparent windows for a reason. Also, this article is poorly titled and misleading.
    Report This
    natmrrtt Apr 10, 2010 1:47 PM
    OH MAN! Let's make it so that not just the blind can drive but dogs, cats, gerbils, centipedes, ants and flies! Putrid cadavers too! IT'S A BRAVE NEW WORLD LADDIE!
    Report This
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    Students at Virginia Tech University have succeeded in breaking down another barrier for the disabled: Building a vehicle that allows the blind to drive.


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