For long-distance trips, the seeing-eye dog might soon be replaced by the seeing-eye car. Researchers on Virginia Tech’s Blind Driver Team, with funding from the National Federation of the Blind, might soon give blind people the ability to do something they never thought possible: drive. The prototype “car” is actually a buggy equipped with lasers that judge the surrounding terrain. That information is then relayed to the blind driver through a variety of tactile and auditory cues to help them navigate the closed track successfully.
Since directions for navigation must be very precise, from the amount of turn required to the immediate need for braking and acceleration, the information relayed has to be more than what could be conveyed by a passenger in the shotgun seat. Therefore, the team approached the challenge by integrating the information as completely as possible. Drivers wear a vest that provides force feedback indicating the speed of the car. There is a click counter with audio cues built into the steering wheel. Directional commands are spoken. There’s even a tactile map that uses blasts of compressed air to indicate obstacles around the car and information about the road itself.
In the trial, the blind participants zipped along the track with relative ease compared to their sighted-but-blindfolded counterparts. The next step is to ramp up the project to electric cars, which will reduce the amount of vibrations that regular motors cause. The National Federation of the Blind is also hoping to bring the prototype to their youth summer camp, to give blind teens the ability to drive just like their seeing peers.