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

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 Second Ago
      • 7 Months Ago
      Read a book called the Death of Common Sense-- this idea shows it up perfectly. Driving is a privilege not a right--if this comes about expect more and more accidents. As for being totally independent, never having to ask for help or rely on anyone else for anything, ever-- this is an idea that has made American neighborhoods die out, the concept of checking on your neighbor die as no one knows their neighbors and brags about it as though it were some kind of wonderful thing-- I can remember when not every woman drove and/or most families had only one car-- if there was someone in the neighborhood going to the store, she would check with her neighbors to see if they wanted to go along or needed an item she could pick up- it was called being a good neighbor. My mom never learned to drive, we had only one car and Dad worked every day. If she needed to get someplace we had wonderful neighbors who were happy to help-- this nation was settled by people willing and happy to help their neighbors. Asking for a ride is not the end of the world- living so independently that you never interact with anyone could be.
      • 7 Months Ago
      Billy Joel needs to buy this car!
      • 7 Months Ago
      "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.
      • 7 Months Ago
      This is a dangerous and stupid idea. First of all how in the hell can blind people try to see when they can't? And I don't understand why this stupid article is being published other than learning about these students who are just making ridiculous contributions that doesn't mean anything. Why can't these idiots, instead find a cure for blindness instead of making something that is completely ridiculous In fact there is a whole lot of inaccuracies in this article about how the vehicle is supposed to 'work'. Nothing makes absolute sense in this entire article.
      • 7 Months Ago
      More than stupid.................We kill more than 55,000 people every year who are checked to be able to see and hear......................This is not a option
      • 7 Months Ago
      "Putting the Sightless Behind the Wheel" _______________________________ Why not? The deaf seem to be in charge of the music business these days.
      • 7 Months Ago
      I think it is awesome. Sure there are going to be glitches, but this is a great step. If we can have people walk on the moon, why can't we have blind people drive on the road? Obviously, we have to make sure it is safe for them and others, but I think this is a huge step in having this happen.
      • 7 Months Ago
      It great that everyone thinks that curing blindness is the way to go. A big majority of blindness issues are present at birth, so unless you guys know a way to change genetics then not much of a chance to CURE blindness. Look at myopia which is an eye that isn't perfectly round. How would you fix that? This is a great step for those of us who are hand cuffed by the government and can't get around without someone. Public transportation is a joke in most cities and is nothing more than a hassle. There are soo many unsafe drives that can legally get a license that shouldn't have them. I mean look around next time your on the interstate and look at people texting on a cell doing 75, or putting on makeup, or shaving, or changing clothes, ok eating and talking omn the phone. Not to mention the countless number of people who can get a license that drive drunk. The ways in which the body has to coordinate to make vision makes the visual system in the body very, very complicated and still very much not understood.
      • 7 Months Ago
      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.
      • 7 Months Ago
      Lizord69... you are too FUNNY!!! take your soapbox somewhere else cus the laughter your rant has caused me is driving me to tears.
      • 7 Months Ago
      • 7 Months Ago
      letting the blind drive IS safeer than being shot at i suppose...
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