Friday, February 25, 2011

Virginia Tech students help bring Blind Driver Challenge to Daytona

A team of graduate and undergraduate students from the Virginia Tech College of Engineering helped make history Jan. 29, 2011, at Daytona International Speedway.

As part of the ongoing Blind Driver Challenge, a blind man drove a 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid SUV on 1.5 miles of the famed course during the three-day Rolex 24 race extravaganza. At a top speed of 27 mph, he steered through a set of obstacles that included barrels and cardboard boxes randomly thrown from the back of a van. He then passed the moving van. Assisting the driver was high-tech hardware developed by Hokies, past and present.

The driver – Mark Riccobono, an executive with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) -- did perfectly. His trek complete, he parked the vehicle at track’s end and within minutes embraced and kissed his wife. The trek made international news: CNN, “Wired,” Fox News, and more.

The 10-minute trip caps years of research engineering work by teams of College of Engineering students, led by Dennis Hong, director of Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory and associate professor of mechanical engineering.

“As Mark arrived safely at the finish line, hugging his wife with tears in his eyes, I couldn’t help but also cry,” Hong said. “I asked Mark if he could give me a ride back to my hotel. He is blind, but I knew he could see the big smile on my face.”


Having the freedom to drive an automobile has long been a dream of blind people. It’s among the first things they are told they never can do. But in 2004, the National Federation of the Blind – a nonprofit advocacy group based in Baltimore – put forth the Blind Driver Challenge: Create non-visual interface technology that one day could allow a blind person to safely and reliably drive an automobile.

Virginia Tech is the only university and research institution to take up the call. Work began in earnest in 2006. Within three years, undergraduate engineering students built a prototype buggy that used laser range finders to scan the surrounding environment and relay information back to the driver via a variety of new non-visual interface technologies.

Riccobono was one of the first blind people to drive the red buggy in May 2009 on Virginia Tech’s campus. At the time, he said, “This is sort of our going to the moon project.” The buggy publicly debuted shortly thereafter at the NFB’s Youth Slam summer camp in College Park, Md., in July 2009. The debut made international news, but it was merely the beginning of the effort.

From there, work began on the second-generation of Blind Driver vehicles, highway-ready cars that could conceivably by used on the open road. The set goal was large: Debut the cars on one of the most famous pieces of asphalt in the United States, a landmark among racing fans. The Daytona International Speedway.


To meet the goal, Virginia Tech enlisted the help of TORC Technologies, a company founded by College of Engineering alumni and based at the university’s Corporate Research Center. TORC had an essential ingredient: ByWire XGV technology that can be integrated to a vehicle, in this case two Ford Escape Hybrids. The tech provides reliable and safe electronic control of the vehicle and the capability to be stopped remotely, among other modifications.

Engineering students designed the non-visual interface devices used by blind drivers to steer and operate the vehicle. The hardware includes wire-enhanced vibrating gloves called DriveGrips and a vibrating seat cushion called SpeedStrip. Both interfaces vibrate certain cues that indicate directions to accelerate or halt, turn right or left. The vehicles can “see” obstacles and the road ahead, via strategically placed laser range finders and cameras.

“Through the help of technology and ingenuity, the possibilities for the blind are limitless,” said Matt Dowden, a College of Engineering graduate research assistant from Falls Church, Va., who originated DriveGrip while an undergraduate. “This project, from the original concept to the dune buggy to the highway-ready SUVs has always been and always will be about breaking barriers.”

With the technology in place to allow a driver to steer the SUV through a closed course, practice began. For months, on campus, at the nearby Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Smart Road, and then the rural Virginia International Raceway in Danville, Va., Riccobono and other blind drivers tested the vehicles as students and TORC employees perfected the technology.

Daytona debut

Emotions and excitement ran high even before the Blind Driver vehicles debuted at the racetrack.

On the eve of Rolex 24, Riccobono for the first time was able to drive his family around a speedway-owned parking lot in one of the two Blind Driver Challenge SUVs. With his wife – who is also blind – in the passenger seat, and his two children strapped in the back, Riccobono drove the SUV, dodging traffic islands and other obstacles.

“This really hit home for me as my goal is to use engineering to help people overcome life’s toughest challenges,” said Paul D’Angio, a mechanical engineering doctoral student from Basking Ridge, N.J. Added Hong: “To witness and truly feel our hard work directly touching others hearts, giving people hope and inspiring others, was an experience that I will never forget.”

Riccobono himself said his driving the Daytona track was a historic moment for blind people all over -- there are an estimated 1.3 million legally blind people just in the United States – but that the short, quiet drive he took with his family was a personal life highlight.

The next day, Jan. 29, Riccobono drove the track. Before hundreds of fellow federation members and thousands of race fans parked and camped within the track, Riccobono turned the ignition at the track’s iconic starting line. All engines go. A group of photographers and cameramen filmed his departure and then raced themselves to the finish line to capture the arrival.

He took an 18-degree bank, steered through white barrels, and navigated around those cardboard boxes thrown from the back of a van. A track announcer called out every move Riccobono made as he drove to demo’s end point. Riccobono exited the vehicle elated, emotional.

“People asked me what are you going to say, and I had some things in mind of what I was going to say,” Riccobono said afterward. “But for me the moment spoke for itself, there were no words. Even words that I conjure up ahead of time that would fit the moment.”

D’Angio was in the van, dropping the boxes the SUV dodged. “We made a large amount of practice runs, so during the actual track run we were focused on performing our individual tasks,” he said. “Once the vehicle came to a stop however, screams of celebration echoed throughout the lead vehicle ... after eight months of work we had finally done it!”

Added Ryan Colby, a master’s student in mechanical engineering from Rochester, N.Y.: “Experiencing the actual demo from up close, it seemed so natural to see a blind man driving since our team had already seen this happening firsthand in our practice sessions.”

Back in Blacksburg, at least one Virginia Tech Blind Driver Challenge team member listened via Internet to the live broadcasted demo. “I could feel the excitement and palpable anticipation as Mark was handed the keys. I thought, ‘He’s really going to do this – it is reality. All the hard work is about to pay off,’” said Chelsea Cook, a freshman majoring in physics from Newport News, Va., who is blind.

“What came next seemed analogous to a space shuttle launch: Systems check, preparing the non-visual interfaces, checking their functionality, giving a thumbs-up to the other crews. I always get the sense that driving the [Blind Driver] vehicle is like being a test pilot: exhilarating, slight risk involved, and the old mantra: Pushing the edge of the envelope,” said Cook, a self-proclaimed “NASA geek.”


What is next for the Blind Driver Challenge vehicles? Advocates at federation know well the barriers that loom before them are large, not just the technology-based hurdles, but the societal ones as well. Having blind drivers sharing the road is several years off. The technology likely will be ready before insurers, highway regulators, and everyday motorists are open to the concept.

But hopes remain undeterred. “This is just one piece,” said Riccobono. “We have a lot more work to do to continue this effort. … This is not just a dream, but a path to something that is going to be real.” Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said before the Daytona demo, “This isn’t the end, this is just the beginning.”

Hong and his research team plan to meet the end-goal of the Blind Driver Challenge: Develop a car that can be driven by a blind person independently. “The SpeedStrip and DriveGrip interfaces were simple ‘instructional cue’ devices that we are moving away from, and we are now pursuing more sophisticated ‘informational cue’ devices for the driving interfaces,” Hong said.

“What we have shown at Daytona is that the human brain is capable of surpassing our wildest imaginations when coupled with the right technology,” said Jesse Hurdus, a software engineer with TORC who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech. “Partnering with Virginia Tech and RoMeLa to achieve this difficult challenge shows the power of combining industry expertise with student creativity.”

The devices used in the SUVs, as well as other technologies developed by students during the Blind Driver Challenge likely have other uses outside of driving – perhaps being adopted to home appliances, computers, and other everyday objects used by the blind. The laser range finders and technologies on the SUVs also could be adapted to all cars and trucks. Think how handy it would be to have a laser-based collision warning alarm on a dangerous, fog-covered mountain road.

“Humans do not adapt easily to what they think is impossible, unless, of course, you are brought up to embrace technology, as some of us in the blind community have,” said Cook, who has since driven one of the Blind Driver vehicles on a close-ended highway course. “The ability to control a vehicle independently is amazing, but I’m just as curious to see the spin-offs and applications in other fields until society is ready for us to hit the road.”

Editor’s Note: This is a full-text version of an article appearing at the Virginia Tech website. The original article includes additional photographs and video links about the Blind Driver Challenge. All images by Steven D. A. Mackay, Virginia Tech College of Engineering, and Suzanne Shaffer, National Federation of the Blind.

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