How Do You Build a Car for the Blind?

It certainly sounds outlandish, but Virginia Tech undergraduates want to build a car that can be driven by blind people.

The National Federation of the Blind issued a challenge to universities in 2004 to develop a vehicle for the blind, and Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory was the only team to take up the challenge. The team built a semi-autonomous vehicle out of an all-terrain buggy that uses a laser range finder and sensory technology that allows a blind driver to operate it.

The steering wheel is connected to a distance monitor that uses the laser range finders and voice software to tell the driver how to turn the wheel. The voice might say something like “turn right four clicks,” then the software will click four times as the driver adjusts.

As for acceleration, the driver wears a vest that vibrates in different places for different signals. The back, stomach and shoulders all mean different commands, except when the whole vest vibrates, which essentially means “hit the brakes now!”

A system called Airpix blasts compressed air through tiny holes in a screen, which creates a kind of tactile map that the driver can feel, like Braille. It renders a type of three-dimensional map about the car’s immediate surroundings. Laboratory director Dennis Hong said more feedback will be needed from visually impaired people to refine the system.

Blind people are still a long way from becoming drivers, but the program promises to offer other breakthroughs for blind people trying to live independently through associated technologies.

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