Cars For the Blind? You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

January 27, 2012

While it may at times feel like every other driver on the road is blind (or at least visually challenged), you probably never thought that you'd actually be sharing the road with a real blind driver. And while you aren't going to see one on the road today, emerging technology could make blind drivers a reality in the next few years.

Using a technology that utilizes "Nonvisual Interfaces," the National Federation of the Blind, in conjunction with engineers at Virginia Tech, recently announced plans to unveil a prototype vehicle that apparently uses sensors to help relay information to blind drivers in order to help them navigate obstacles in the road. The NFB plan on debuting the vehicle (a Ford Escape modified to include nonvisual interface technology) at the Daytona International Speedway before the Rolex 24 race in January of 2011.

While it may seem hard to conceive of cars for the blind, the technology behind the vehicle actually took shape during Virginia Tech's involvement in the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge - a Defense Department sponsored competition for developing driverless vehicles. After being contacted by the NFB and urged to continue their research into vehicles that could be driven by the blind, engineers experimented further with technology that used lasers, cameras and other sensors to transmit data to "nonvisual interfaces." The driver would then use those interfaces to help them navigate and drive the car.

While a safe, consumer ready version of this technology may still be years of comprehensive testing away, the mere fact that this prototype exists may help to convince other scientists and advocates for the blind that they may need to rethink their ideas of the limitations of blindness and what can be achieved through technology.