Five years ago, when I first heard Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, then executive director for the Jernigan Institute at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), speak about a car that blind people could drive, I remember thinking, Yes, that could be possible. At the time, I knew about cars with motion detectors that could sense the proximity of another vehicle, and I'd read about cars that were programmed to stay in the proper lane. I, like many others, assumed Dr. Zaborowski was talking about a programmable car—a car that could automatically take a blind person to a programmed address or set of coordinates, similar to the way GPS works.
That's also what Dr. Dennis Hong, professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, first thought when he was approached by the NFB to collaborate on a project that would enable a blind person to drive a car. After all, students at Virginia Tech had already developed an autonomous vehicle that could drive without a human. Dr. Hong soon learned, however, that an autonomous car was not at all what those at the NFB imagined. They wanted a car that would literally put a blind person in the driver's seat, detecting obstacles, determining turns, and making decisions.
"What can't you do?" is a question that most blind people hear from sighted friends and colleagues at one time or another. For me, the answer used to come easily: "I can't read print and I can't drive."
With scanners and optical character recognition software, the first obstacle has for the most part been overcome. On our desktops and in our pockets, we have technology that can snap a picture of a page of print and read it aloud for us, magnify it, or translate it into braille.
Driving, though, was another matter. Many of us who have been blind since birth or childhood have had our "unauthorized" experiments with driving—behind the wheel in a parking lot or open field with a brave sighted friend or family member providing instructions. The thrill is great, but the experience, we know, is not one that can be transferred to reality. For those who lost sight after driving age, the first regret expressed is typically, "I can no longer drive."
The Blind Driver Challenge, a collaboration between the NFB and Virginia Tech, is changing that reality. The goal of the challenge was to develop technology that would give a blind person enough information, through nonvisual interfaces, to make the same decisions a sighted driver would make in order to safely and confidently pilot a car.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to experience a simulation of the technology in development. Sitting in a Ford Escape, the hybrid car used for the project, I donned special DriveGrip gloves and placed my hands on the steering wheel. A slight vibration in the left or right glove clearly indicated when to turn in each direction. Even though this was only a simulation, the experience was a thrilling one. Afterwards I realized that a blind person, if given the necessary information through senses other than sight, could operate a vehicle.
In addition to the DriveGrip gloves, the Virginia Tech team, lead by Dr. Hong and graduate student Paul D'Angio, developed an accompanying vibrating seat cushion called SpeedStrip, that emits vibrations at various points on the driver's legs to signal when to accelerate or slow down.
Dr. Hong explained that the challenge consisted of addressing two components: information and instruction. The engineers needed to devise a means for information to be gathered and then conveyed to the blind driver as an instruction on how to react. "How you drive," he said, "is then up to you."
The car is equipped with cameras and lasers. The lasers detect the lanes and any obstacles in the car's path, and this information is then conveyed through the SpeedStrip cushion and DriveGrip gloves via a complicated algorithm written by the Virginia Tech team.
The target date and location for the groundbreaking official demonstration was set for January 29, 2010, at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida. Several blind people were tested for the ability to interpret and react to the information provided by the system. Ultimately Mark Riccobono, current executive director of the Jernigan Institute, was chosen as the driver, and Anil Lewis, the NFB's director of strategic communications, was chosen as his backup. Both men would receive the same training on the car in preparation for the demonstration.
These two men come to blindness from completely different perspectives. Riccobono, age 34, has been blind since age five and had never driven a car. Lewis, age 46, was once a sighted driver, having lost his sight gradually to retinitis pigmentosa. Riccobono was selected as driver, with Lewis in the wings as backup for the Daytona event.
Lewis said that learning to drive with the nonvisual interfaces was very much like learning to drive as a sighted teenager, only with different senses operating to receive and interpret the information regarding surroundings.
"Just when you've wrapped your head around the fact that [driving] is one thing you can't do as a blind man," Lewis said, "you find out that, yes, with the right technology, anything is possible."
The Big Event
On January 29, some 400 members of the NFB filled two grandstands at Daytona International Speedway, awaiting the big event. Mark Riccobono was behind the wheel, and the crowd was wild with anticipation. Although he drove the course at 30 miles per hour rather than the mind-numbing speeds of racecar drivers, this blind man, for the first time in history, independently drove a car uphill and down and around curves, all the while circumventing obstacles placed in his path. The demonstration was a success!
Riccobono said he drove with the windows down, so he could feel the Florida air rushing by and hear his friends from the stands cheering him on. One heckler, he recalled, shouted at him to "Go right! Go right!"—but the system told him otherwise, and he confidently guided the car left to avoid an obstacle in his path. The experience, he quipped, was not unlike that of the blind pedestrian who, when walking independently with a cane, receives inaccurate information. The message of trusting one's own intelligence and skill was clear.
What Lies Ahead
While the reality of blind people everywhere driving cars with nonvisual interfaces is a long way off, the project is ongoing and evolving. The current focus, Dr. Hong said, is to develop a means of giving the blind driver a picture of the environment. At this point, the nonvisual interfaces instruct the driver, say, to veer left, but the driver doesn't exactly know why. The team is now working on a tactile display, a computer monitor for the blind of sorts, by which a blind person could "see" that there is a tree on the left or a truck passing in the opposite lane. Although it may not be the final method used, the team is currently experimenting with a system called AirPix, which uses puffs of air to reproduce for the driver a tactile representation of the surrounding environment. Imagine that this tactile display is situated on the console between the driver and passenger seats. The driver can put his or her right hand on it briefly and, through alternating currents of air, recognize the elements of the environment through which the car is passing.
What It Means
Lewis and Riccobono, as well as Dr. Hong and his students, are quick to point out that the Blind Driver Challenge is not just about driving. The technologies being developed may have far-reaching applications for blind people in education, employment, and elsewhere. AirPix, for example, might evolve in such a way that a blind student could "see" a tactile representation of what a professor writes on the blackboard.
"There are so many misconceptions about the capacities of blind people," Lewis said. "If people recognize that through nonvisual interfaces a blind person can drive, they'll begin to understand that, with the right tools and techniques, we have the intelligence and capacity to do all manner of other things as well."
Spreading the News
As word of the Daytona demonstration began to spread, the absence of facts sparked some confusion.
"Many people think this was a stunt or a hoax," Riccobono said. Indeed, in the days and weeks that followed, despite the fact that the event received considerable media coverage, even many blind people thought it was a joke. "I'll drive when pigs fly," I heard one blind man say.
Well, pigs may not be flying yet, but the Blind Driver Challenge is truly putting blind people behind the wheel.