Blind Drivers Get Behind the Wheel


A new hi-tech car allows blind people to drive independently. Set to make its debut on the Daytona International Speedway in 2011, the modified Ford Escape is equipped with non-visual sensors that enable blind drivers to make safe decisions on the road.

The National Federation of the Blind has teamed with Virginia Polytechnic Institute to design the first car for the blind. The revolutionary vehicle is scheduled to be unveiled as a part of pre-race festivities at the 2011 Rolex at Daytona on Jan. 29.

Researchers have modified a Ford Escape by adding what they call “non-visual interface technology.” This technology uses lasers and cameras to create signals like vibrations, which allow blind users to make driving decisions. One interface, for example, called DriveGrip, involves a set of vibrating gloves that cue drivers as to when and how to turn. Another interface blows compressed air to inform the driver about nearby objects.

“The challenge was not the development of an autonomous vehicle that could drive a blind person around, but rather the creation of non-visual interfaces that would allow a blind person to actually make driving decisions,” says Dr. Dennis Hong, director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech.

Ultimately, the goals of the project are larger than just getting blind drivers on the road. The researchers aim to break stereotypes about blindness and its social effects.

According to a Virginia Tech press release, Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, states, “We are trying to build a technology that can be combined with an intellect to do things that neither could do alone. We are pleased to have the opportunity to demonstrate the fruits of our efforts before the automobile enthusiasts and racing fans at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. This demonstration will break down the wall of stereotypes and misconceptions that prevent our full integration into society by showing the public that the blind have the same capacities as everyone else. Our only challenge is access to the information we need.”

Although it will likely be a while before blind drivers are zooming down the highway, this project marks a big step for the blind community.