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The Blind Driver Challenge

Virginia Tech's newest Blind Driver Challenge vehicles had their first public test at the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway.

The Blind Driver Challenge is the National Federation of the Blind's mission to develop non-visual interface technologies that will allow a blind person to safely and independently operate a car.

    Mark Riccobono exits one of the two Blind Driver Challenge vehicles currently undergoing testing and development. Riccobono is executive director of the National Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute.

The challenge was issued in 2004. Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering was the first and remains the only academic institution to take up that call. Work began in 2006 and culminated in the July 2009 debut of a prototype buggy. The buggy used a variety of technologies that allowed participants at the federation's annual Youth Slam summer camp to drive.

    A retrofitted four-wheel dirt buggy developed by the Blind Driver Challenge team from Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory uses laser range finders, an instant voice command interface and other technology to guide blind drivers as they steer, brake, and accelerate.

The buggy was developed by undergraduate and graduate students from the College of Engineering, led by Dennis Hong, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory. The vehicle was a hit -– garnering a front page story in The Washington Post and a spot on CBS’ “The Early Show.”

Since then Hong and the College of Engineering has teamed with Blacksburg-based TORC Technologies to develop two modified Ford Escape SUVs.

    DriveGrip gloves are worn to assist blind drivers. The gloves contain motorized sensors that clue a driver on when to turn right or left, using directional data derived from the vehicle's laser rangefinders or cameras.

The gist of the challenge is not developing an autonomous car that drives a blind person around, but about developing an interface that can convey real-time information about driving conditions to blind drivers so they can think think through the driving process and safely maneuver the car.

The new prototype interface made its public debut Jan. 29, 2011, preceding the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. The demonstration of a blind person driving independently on the inner track is historic, according to the National Federation of the Blind.

“With just a little help from technology, it is incredible what the blind can accomplish,” Hong said.


Pictures and video

  • See a video of the January 2011 test and explanation of the newest Blind Driver Challenge vehicle
  • See a video about the features of the vehicle
  • See a video about the advancing technology behind the vehicle
  • See a photo gallery of the January 2011 test of the newest Blind Driver Challenge vehicle.
  • See a photo gallery of the newest Blind Driver Challenge vehicle in action in December 2010.
  • See a video of the first challenge vehicle -- a four-wheel drive dune buggy -- in action.

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Virginia Tech students engineer vehicle that enables blind drivers to take the wheel

    Addie Hagen (right), 16, takes her turn behind wheel of the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle.

Not every teenager who turns 16 gets to have a driver’s license. But a group of blind and low-vision youth had the chance to drive a retrofitted buggy designed by Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory  (RoMeLa) team. The experience was part of the week-long National Federation of the Blind’s Youth Slam camp.