A team of graduate and undergraduate students from the Virginia Tech College of Engineering helped make history Jan. 29, 2011, at Daytona International Speedway.
As part of the ongoing Blind Driver Challenge, a blind man drove a 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid SUV on 1.5 miles of the famed course during the three-day Rolex 24 race extravaganza. At a top speed of 27 mph, Mark Riccobono, an executive with the National Federation of the Blind, steered through a set of obstacles that included barrels, randomly thrown cardboard boxes, and a moving vehicle. High-tech hardware developed by Hokies, past and present, assisted the driver.
The 10-minute trip caps years of research engineering work by College of Engineering students led by Dennis Hong, director of Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory and associate professor of mechanical engineering.
“As Mark arrived safely at the finish line, hugging his wife with tears in his eyes, I couldn’t help but also cry,” Hong said. “I asked Mark if he could give me a ride back to my hotel. He is blind, but I knew he could see the big smile on my face.”
In 2004, the National Federation of the Blind, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Baltimore, put forth the Blind Driver Challenge to create technology that one day could allow a blind person to safely and reliably drive an automobile.
Virginia Tech was the only university and research institution to take up the call. Work began in earnest in 2006. Within three years, undergraduate engineering students built a prototype buggy that used laser range finders to scan the surrounding environment and relay information back to the driver via a variety of new non-visual interface technologies.
The buggy publicly debuted at the federation’s Youth Slam summer camp in College Park, Md., in July 2009.
From there, work began on the second-generation vehicles, highway-ready cars that could conceivably be used on the open road.
Virginia Tech enlisted the help of TORC Technologies, a company founded by College of Engineering alumni and based at the university’s Corporate Research Center. TORC had an essential ingredient: ByWire XGV technology that can be integrated with a vehicle, in this case two Ford Escape Hybrids. The technology provides reliable and safe electronic control of the vehicle and gives it the capability to be stopped remotely, among other modifications.
Engineering students designed the non-visual interface devices blind drivers use to operate the vehicle. The hardware includes gloves called DriveGrips and a seat cushion called SpeedStrip. Both vibrate certain cues that indicate directions to accelerate or halt, turn right or left. The vehicles can “see” obstacles and the road ahead through strategically placed laser range finders and cameras.
“Through the help of technology and ingenuity, the possibilities for the blind are limitless,” said Matt Dowden, a College of Engineering graduate research assistant from Falls Church, Va., who originated DriveGrip while an undergraduate. “This project, from the original concept to the dune buggy to the highway-ready SUVs has always been and always will be about breaking barriers.”
On Jan. 28, the eve of the Rolex 24, Riccobono for the first time was able to drive his family around a parking lot in one of the SUVs. With his wife, who is also blind, in the passenger seat and his two children strapped in the back, Riccobono drove the SUV, dodging traffic islands and other obstacles.
“This really hit home for me as my goal is to use engineering to help people overcome life’s toughest challenges,” said Paul D’Angio, a mechanical engineering doctoral student from Basking Ridge, N.J.
The next day, Riccobono drove the track. He took an 18-degree bank, steered through white barrels, navigated around cardboard boxes thrown from the back of a van, and then passed the van. A track announcer called out every move.
“People asked me what are you going to say, and I had some things in mind of what I was going to say,” Riccobono said afterward. “But for me the moment spoke for itself, there were no words, even words that I conjure up ahead of time that would fit the moment.”
D’Angio was in the van, dropping the boxes that the SUV dodged. “We made a large amount of practice runs, so during the actual track run we were focused on performing our individual tasks,” he said. “Once the vehicle came to a stop however, screams of celebration echoed throughout the lead vehicle ... after eight months of work we had finally done it!”
What's next for the project? The College of Engineering's Blind Driver Challenge team plans to continue to hone the new technology and meet the goal of the effort: develop a car that can be driven by a blind person independently.
About the Daytona International Speedway event
Take a look back at previous Spotlight features in our archive.