Recently, I had the opportunity to see the second generation of a technology that many say is impossible. While attending the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind during the 4th-of-July week in Dallas, Texas, I experienced technology that someday may enable the blind to drive their own cars.
The hands-on exhibit consisted of the latest technological advances coming from the NFB’s Blind-Driver-Challenge which was initiated just over three years ago. The Challenge was issued to all universities in the United States asking them to develop an automobile that would be drivable by a blind person. One requirement was to utilize current technology and to make the vehicles semi-autonomous while the blind person would do the driving.
The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech took on that task and just one and a half years later had created a prototype vehicle. This consisted of a dune buggy outfitted with devices that translated visual information into tactile allowing the driver to make decisions based on what they could “feel” about their surroundings. This type of transforming information is called haptics. It is not a new technology but used in a new way. There are plans to demonstrate this technology to the public. A Ford Explorer equipped with the non-visual interface technology, will be driven by a blind individual who will navigate part of the famed Daytona International Speedway.
There were three other devices on display at the convention that make this car possible. The first technology incorporated by the Blind-Driver-Challenge vehicle utilized Lidar. Lidar is a lot like radar except that it uses light rather than radio waves to gage distances to objects. The Explorer will have Lidar devices positioned around it and on-board computers identify objects surrounding the automobile. This helps the driver “look” around the vehicle.
The second technology assists the driver in interpreting the Lidar information. The driver wears a pair of specially designed gloves with built-in transducers. Depending on the type and urgency of the information the car’s on-board computer needs to communicate, dif-ferent areas of the gloves would be energized creating different sensations in the driver’s hands. The urgency of the information would be directly proportional to the intensity of the sensations.
The last technology informs the driver of the presence of surrounding objects consisted of a matrix of blow holes placed on a flat panel. Very much like the blowing holes in an air hockey table to keep the puck floating, the air holes in the blind drivable car would communicate information to the driver.
During a demonstration I had, I was asked to identify the pattern generated by the holes that had air coming out of them and by those that didn’t. The first pattern I could identify with my hand was a cross. The second was a circle, and the last was a triangle. In a car, these would be the object pre-sent outside the car.
An on-board computer in combination with the Lidar information could be displayed tactilely on this device. No one I spoke to at the convention thought that a blind-drivable car would be on our highways anytime soon. Rather, the goal of the Blind-Driver-Challenge was to spur on innovation and to raise the visibility of how challenging transportation is to our visually impaired population.
Tags: Blind Driver Challenge
, John Bailey
, visually impaired