[tabi] Blind drivers plot their own course

  • From: "Lynn Evans" <evans-lynn@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <tabi@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 4 Aug 2009 20:56:48 -0400

Blind Drivers Plot Their Own Course
Va. Tech Prototype Vehicle Lets Visually Impaired Students Take the Wheel

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 1, 2009

A voice rose above the chatter in the University of Maryland parking 
lot: "Blind man driving!"

Twenty people took turns piloting a car on this muggy Friday morning, 
the first public test of technology that might one day overcome 
barriers to putting the blind behind the wheel.

The quest to drive has captivated the blind community as it has 
become more integrated into a car-centric society. Some likened 
Friday's test to a moon landing -- a fitting analogy, considering 
that the prototype vehicle vaguely resembled a lunar rover.

"One day, we'll be on the road with them," said Ishaan Rastogi, 15, a 
blind New Jersey high school student with a Yankees cap pulled over 
his eyes and the first to test the vehicle.

The event capped a 
<http://www.blindscience.org/ncbys/youth_slam.asp>summer science 
academy organized by the National Federation of the Blind for 200 
blind and low-vision young people from across the country. The youths 
had spent the week rock climbing, bungee-jumping and launching 
weather balloons, activities tailored to teach that there is no limit 
to what a blind person can do.

Virginia Tech engineers started work on the vehicle in response to a 
2004 challenge from the blindness advocacy group to build a vehicle 
that the blind could drive with the same freedom as the sighted.

"Blind people can do all sorts of things that the public doesn't 
think we can do," said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the federation. 
The blind can read ordinary books with a hand-held device that 
translates type to synthetic speech. Adaptive devices permit blind 
users to interact with computers and surf the Internet.

Driving without sight became a conceivable goal in this decade with 
the development of autonomous, computer-guided vehicles. The Defense 
Advanced Research Projects Agency ran a series of 
<http://www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/index.asp>contests to inspire a 
driverless car that could navigate complex terrain. By 2007, vehicles 
from Virginia Tech and several other universities could complete the 
DARPA course.

But an autonomous vehicle wasn't enough.

"We want the blind person to be the driver, not to be driven," said 
Matt Lippy, 21, a member of the nine-person design team at 
<http://www.me.vt.edu/romela/RoMeLa/RoMeLa.html>Virginia Tech's 
Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory.

The design team first sought to customize Virginia Tech's entry in 
the 2007 DARPA contest, a modified Ford Escape that finished third in 
the competition. But the engineers decided it would be easier to 
start from scratch. They purchased an all-terrain vehicle online for 
$1,300 in fall 2008 and began anew.

They mounted a laser sensor to the front of the vehicle to sweep the 
terrain ahead and return a signal. A powerful computer at the rear of 
the buggy interprets the signal to build a two-dimensional map, 
showing obstacles in the vehicle's path.

But how to show that map to a person who cannot see?

Researchers boiled down the data to two crucial factors: direction 
and speed. A computer voice signals the driver through headphones how 
to steer to avoid a collision -- one click to the left, for example; 
three clicks to the right.

"We call it a back-seat driver," Lippy said.

The increments correspond to notches cut from the steering wheel. The 
driver turns the wheel and hears an audible "click."

The computer communicates speed with vibrations fed through a vest 
worn by the driver. Stronger vibrations indicate it is time to stop. 
Sensors automatically kill the engine if the vehicle gets too close 
to an impediment. For the test drives, engineers rigged the buggy for 
a top speed of 15 mph.

One by one Friday morning, drivers buzzed around Parking Lot 1D, 
empty save for traffic cones placed at intervals around light poles. 
There were no mishaps.

"It's finally a chance to drive," said Angel Reyes, 16, a junior at 
New Brunswick High School in New Jersey, as he climbed from the 
vehicle. "Finally a chance to be more independent in getting where 
you want to go."

When the team first tested the buggy in May, three blind drivers 
completed a curved course without hitting a single cone. In fact, the 
blind drivers -- who had never driven before -- fared better than the 
engineers themselves, who tried steering the car blindfolded. Lippy 
thinks that the experienced drivers tended to ignore the computer 
signals and follow their own instincts; the blind drivers obeyed the 
computer to the letter.

The blind drivers posed questions that had not occurred to the 
engineers. How would they find the vehicle in a parking lot? If they 
had to jump the battery, how could they tell the positive cable from 
the negative?

The engineers say their first Blind Driver Challenge vehicle is 
crude. The computer can sense and avoid obstacles but cannot plot a 
course to a destination. The team is working on a more sophisticated 
interface to deliver signals to drivers. Their goal is to convert the 
two-dimensional map plotted by the computer into something a blind 
driver can touch.

They have tested a grid of air holes that shoot bursts of air, using 
various pulses and pressures, to convey topographical data. (A higher 
pressure could signal hills or bumps.)

"You have to understand, this is a prototype," said Dennis Hong, an 
associate professor at Virginia Tech who directs the robotics lab. 
"First time in the history of mankind."

He predicts a safe, stable technology for blind motorists will arrive 
"within the next three years. The problem is not the technology. The 
problem is public perception and legal issues."

He urges detractors to think of the last time they flew in an 
airplane. "On autopilot," he said. "Nobody questions that."

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