Work continues to advance, adapt blind driver technology

What is next for the Blind Driver Challenge vehicles? Advocates at the National Federation for the Blind know the barriers that loom before them are large -- not just the technology-based hurdles, but the societal ones, as well. Having blind drivers sharing the road is several years off. The technology likely will be ready before insurers, highway regulators, and everyday motorists are open to the concept. 

But hopes remain undeterred. “This is just one piece,” said Mark Riccobono, a federation executive. “We have a lot more work to do to continue this effort. … This is not just a dream, but a path to something that is going to be real.”


A blind child uses his hands to feel one of the second-generation Blind Driver Challenge vehicles during their exhibition at Daytona International Speedway. A blind child uses his hands to feel one of the second-generation Blind Driver Challenge vehicles during their exhibition at Daytona International Speedway.

In Jan. 29, 2011, Riccobono, who is blind, successfully drove Virginia Tech's modified Ford Escape Hybrid SUV around the inner track of Daytona International Speedway. Before the event, Marc Maurer, federation president, said:  “This isn’t the end, this is just the beginning.”

Dennis Hong, director of Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) and associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, and his research team plan to meet the end-goal of the Blind Driver Challenge: develop a car that can be driven by a blind person independently.

“The SpeedStrip and DriveGrip interfaces that allow blind drivers to operate the two Ford Escape Hybrid SUVs were simple ‘instructional cue’ devices that we are moving away from, and we are now pursuing more sophisticated ‘informational cue’ devices for the driving interfaces,” Hong said.

“What we have shown at Daytona is that the human brain is capable of surpassing our wildest imaginations when coupled with the right technology,” said Jesse Hurdus, a software engineer with TORC Technologies who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech. “Partnering with Virginia Tech and RoMeLa to achieve this difficult challenge shows the power of combining industry expertise with student creativity.”

The devices used in the SUVs, as well as other technologies developed by students during the Blind Driver Challenge, likely have other uses outside of driving -- perhaps being adopted to home appliances, computers, and other everyday objects used by the blind. The laser range finders and technologies on the SUVs also could be adapted to all cars and trucks. Think how handy it could be to have a laser-based collision warning alarm on a dangerous, fog-covered mountain road.

“Humans do not adapt easily to what they think is impossible, unless, of course, you are brought up to embrace technology, as some of us in the blind community have,” said Chelsea Cook, a freshman majoring in physics from Newport News, Va., who is blind. “The ability to control a vehicle independently is amazing, but I’m just as curious to see the spin-offs and applications in other fields until society is ready for us to hit the road.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Steven Mackay at (540) 231-4787.

    Mark Riccobono steers the Blind Driver Challenge car as part of a public demonstration at the Daytona International Speedway.

A team of graduate and undergraduate students from the Virginia Tech College of Engineering helped make history Jan. 29, 2011, at Daytona International Speedway.

In the news

    Photographers gather around Mark Riccobono, an executive with the National Federation of the Blind, as he prepares to drive at the Daytona International Speedway.

The following is a sampling of stories written by the international media about the demonstration at Daytona International Speedway: