#TIL: Can the Blind Drive a Car?

By Apoorv Kulkarni

Alt text: A black Ford car developed by Virginia Tech University. A blind man with a white cane is standing next to it, and a photographer is taking pictures of the car. National Association of the Blind is written in yellow on the car bonnet. The front door displays information for making donations to support the Blind Driver Challenge.

Driving is predominantly a visual activity,. Therefore, many believe that people living with blindness or low-vision may not be able to independently operate a vehicle… Well at least not until self-driving cars become commercially available. However, in 2004, the National Federation of the Blind issued the Blind Driver Innovation Challenge to empower a blind person to actively make driving decisions such as steering, speed, breaking, etc. This was obviously different from developing an autonomous car where a computer would make all the driving decisions.

In 2011, the Virginia Tech University and Torc Robotics made history by successfully putting a blind person in the driving seat at the Daytona International Speedway. Mark Riccobono drove 1.5 miles (2.41 km). He navigated around various static and dynamic obstacles, negotiated several turns and straightaways as well as overtook another car as a part of this landmark drive.

YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2ciYRB2roA

The technology gathered information on the physical environment through cameras and lasers fitted on a car. This information was then relayed to the driver in non-visual formats. These included hand gloves and seat cushions which provided haptic feedback to help the driver understand the surroundings. How the driver decided to drive the car based on this information was up to him/her.

Alt text: Image of the logo for the ‘Blind Driver Innovation Challenge’. The logo is a white outline of the car with the text ‘Blind Driver Innovation Challenge 21’ on its body. The background is black.
Alt text: Image of the logo for the ‘Blind Driver Innovation Challenge’. The logo is a white outline of the car with the text ‘Blind Driver Innovation Challenge 21’ on its body. The background is black.

Work on the Blind Driver Challenge is fast accelerating. Currently, there are plans for an attempt to break the Guinness Book World Record for the “Fastest Speed for a Car Driven Blindfolded” in the fall of 2021. The team anticipates reaching speeds of 200 miles per hour (over 321 kmph) in this record attempt.

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