The idea sounds preposterous, akin to the New York Philharmonic hiring a deaf conductor. But the National Federation of the Blind has made development of a car that's suitable for the visually impaired an organizational goal, and not a symbolic one.
"It's absolutely intended to be real," says Mark Riccobono, executive director of the federation's Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, which is dedicated to pushing the envelope of applied technology. "For us, this is exactly the same as in 1962 when [President] John F. Kennedy said, 'We are going to the moon.' "
The federation has partnered with students at the Virginia Tech College of Engineering for what's dubbed the Blind Driver Challenge. Riccobono, who himself is blind, drove the prototype vehicle -- a super-sophisticated, laser-equipped dune buggy -- last spring, zipping around a Virginia Tech parking lot at about 20 mph.
The next step involves taking a Ford Escape hybrid SUV and making it completely roadworthy. The design team is now working on systems that can identify individual traffic lanes and can distinguish between similarly shaped objects such as a tree and a stop sign. The National Federation of the Blind hopes to unveil this next-generation Ford Escape in the summer of 2011, showcasing it in a series of demonstration drives along the East Coast.
"The technology for a fully autonomous vehicle exists today," says Dennis Hong, an associate professor in Virginia Tech's department of engineering who is supervising the 13 students working on the project. The trick, however, is to put a blind driver in decision-making control of the car rather than merely having him or her obey instructions issued by an on-board computer. That degree of self-reliance is at least several years away.
Cultural barriers are another matter.
It likely will take blind drivers "much, much longer" to gain legal and social acceptance than it will take engineers to build them a safe car, says Virginia Tech senior Kimberly Wenger of Ponte Vedre Beach, Fla., the student team leader. "There are way too many skeptics out there."
Nearly everyone reacted with skepticism when the Federation for the Blind announced its driving initiative almost a decade ago. "It kind of sat dormant for a couple of years," Riccobono admits.
The federation then put up $3,000 in seed money and asked engineering schools across the country to take up the Blind Driver Challenge as a pro bono cause. Only students from Virginia Tech's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory answered the call.
The modified dune buggy they created utilizes a front-mounted, laser-range-finder sensor. It constantly feeds visual data into a computer that "interface" with a blind driver in two ways.
First, the driver wears a vest embedded with tiny motors that vibrate at different intensity levels according to how fast the car should be going.
Secondly, the computer issues audio cues every few seconds, telling the driver how much to turn the steering wheel and in what direction. Wenger admits that the robot voice can be "a little obnoxious." Indeed, it's like having a know-it-all back-seat driver that doesn't know when to shut up.
As part of the design process, some students put on blindfolds and took test drives. Wenger describes that as a "very scary," reality-bending experience. Most of them could feel the dune buggy surging forward from the moment they strapped themselves into the driver's seat. In fact, it was standing still, simply idling in neutral.
Blind drivers had their own acclamation problems. Wesley Majerus, a staff technology specialist at the Federation of the Blind, initially was "overwhelmed" by the vibrating vest and the robot voice. Once he got the hang of things, though, it was "liberating" to make the transition from lifelong passenger to ... driver. To road warrior. To chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected, born-to-run American.
In the grand tradition of automobile innovation, the 2011 test model is being tweaked. The laser sensor has been upgraded. The vibrating vest has given way to a pair of vibrating driving gloves. The audio cues are history. Instead, the driver will get his bearings from a so-called flexible-surface "tactile map" on the dashboard. The map runs on compressed air and changes shape to reflect what lies on the road ahead. The driver reads the map with his fingertips.
According to Riccobono, the Blind Driver Challenge has gotten a "mixed reaction" thus far. Any fears are unfounded, he says. Nothing is imminent. It will take several million more dollars and several million more hours of brainstorming to produce the proper, blooper-proof vehicle. Even then, the appeal might be limited. But how many blind people venture onto the road isn't important. Their freedom to choose is.
"It wasn't getting to the moon that was significant," Riccobono says. "It was the path of technology development and how it got the nation to think about itself."
In other words, relax. This is just another small step for mankind. There's no need to worry about the prospect of blind people driving automobiles.
Well, not until they get behind the wheel and start text-messaging.