Monday, April 11, 2011
Blind Driver Challenge: Technology that Puts Blind People in the Driver's Seat
By Deborah Kendrick
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."
Image of Mark Riccobono at the wheel of the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle by Steven D. A. Mackay.