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Blind man tackles the road course at Daytona on his own

Mark Riccobono's blind lap of Daytona – Click above for high-res image gallery

Another year, another Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona champion. Something interesting happened before the prototypes took to the track, though, when a Ford Escape Hybrid took on the 1.5-mile road course. The driver, Mark Anthony Riccobono, didn't break any speed records... but he did successfully maneuver the Escape without the help of a very crucial driving aid – vision.

Riccobono is blind, and with the help of non-visual technology, he completed the Daytona road course. Beyond simply making lefts and rights, Riccobono also had to avoid a variety of obstacles. Some were stationary while others were thrown randomly from the back of a van. Riccobono avoided them all, and then he passed the van before crossing the finish line.

The event marks the first time a blind person has driven a vehicle around a course without the aid of a sighted person. It was a major milestone for the Blind Driver Challenge, which aims to improve blind-interface technology. Check out the press release after the break.

Mark Anthony Riccobono's blind lap of Daytona
Mark Anthony Riccobono's blind lap of Daytona
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[Source: National Federation of the Blind | Images: Terry Renna and John Raoux/AP]
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Blind Man Drives Car Independently

Avoids Dynamic Obstacles

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Jan. 29, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the oldest and largest organization of blind people in the nation, announced today that for the first time a blind individual has driven a street vehicle in public without the assistance of a sighted person. Mark Anthony Riccobono, a blind executive who directs technology, research, and education programs for the organization, was behind the wheel of a Ford Escape hybrid equipped with nonvisual technology and successfully navigated 1.5 miles of the road course section of the famed track at the Daytona International Speedway.

The historic demonstration was part of pre-race activities leading up to the Rolex 24 At Daytona this morning. Mr. Riccobono not only successfully navigated the several turns of the road course but also avoided obstacles, some of which were stationary and some of which were thrown into his path at random from a van driving in front of him. Later he successfully passed the van without collision. The Ford Escape was equipped with laser range-finding censors that conveyed information to a computer inside the vehicle, allowing it to create and constantly update a three-dimensional map of the road environment. The computer sent directions to vibrating gloves on the driver's hands, indicating which way to steer, and to a vibrating strip on which he was seated, indicating when to speed up, slow down, or stop.

Mr. Riccobono said: "The NFB's leadership in the Blind Driver Challenge™ has taken something almost everyone believed was an impossible dream and turned it into reality. It was thrilling for me to be behind the wheel, but even more thrilling to hear the cheers from my blind brothers and sisters in the grandstands* -- today all of the members of the NFB helped drive us forward*. It is for them and for all blind Americans that the National Federation of the Blind undertook this project to show that blind people can do anything that our sighted friends and colleagues can do as long as we have access to information through nonvisual means. Today we have demonstrated that truth to the nation and the world."

Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, said: "Just as our colleague Mark Riccobono successfully surmounted many obstacles on the Daytona course today, blind people routinely surmount barriers by using alternative techniques and technologies. When there is not a solution available, we muster our resources and combine them with those of the partners who make common cause with us to produce the innovations necessary to create such a solution. That is how the NFB Blind Driver Challenge™ came to happen, and that is how we will make all of our dreams come true."

The NFB Blind Driver Challenge™ is a research project of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute -- the only research and training facility on blindness operated by the blind. The Jernigan Institute challenged universities, technology developers, and other interested innovators to establish NFB Blind Driver Challenge™ (BDC) teams, in collaboration with the NFB, to build interface technologies that will empower blind people to drive a car independently. The purpose of the NFB Blind Driver Challenge™ is to stimulate the development of nonvisual interface technology. The Virginia Tech/TORC NFB BDC team, under the direction of Dr. Dennis Hong, director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech., is the only team that has accepted the challenge. The team uses the ByWire XGV™ developed by TORC technologies as the research platform for the development and testing of the nonvisual interface technologies that allow a blind person to drive.

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