Will the unsighted ever gain full road independence?
A long time ago, in a galaxy seemingly far, far away the idea of a disabled person driving a car independently felt as fantastical as Star Wars. As for blind drivers…
“A blind person driving a vehicle safely and independently was thought to be an impossible task… Until now.”
When Dennis Hong opened his Technology, Entertainment and Design talk in California with this statement last year, even the inspiration-seeking, innovation-craving TED audience must have been sceptical.
A car driven by a blind person? Really?
But Dr. Hong, the director of Virginia Tec’s Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory, is not full of hyperbolic hot air; he has the proof to back up his proposition.
A few years ago Hong and his team were challenged by the National Federation for the Blind to develop a vehicle that could be operated by the visually impaired and blind.
Hong assumed the task would be easy; after all, in 2007 his team were awarded $500,000 at the DARPA Challenge – a competition to build a driverless car. Surely he just needed to put a blind person in his self-driving vehicle, right?
To create a car a blind person can drive themselves, Hong needed to go back to the drawing board. He needed to build a car that a blind person can drive, not a car that drives a blind person.
Now, several years later, he’s emerged with a potentially game-changing invention for visually disabled motorists. So how does the prototype work?
Well, it’s complicated. Very complicated. But there are some areas of the process that can be simplified and explained. There are basically three main aspects to the set-up: perception, computation and non-visual interfaces.
Reading the road
Obviously, a blind person cannot see what’s happening around the car, so the car needs to perceive the environment for the driver. Hong’s car uses sensors to measure acceleration and combines GPS and cameras to detect the vehicle’s orientation and position in relation to the road, obstacles and other vehicles.
Next, the car needs to compute the information it’s gathering and convey it to the driver. Hong’s team has developed a number of non-visual interfaces (NVIs) to relay the driving environment to the driver, including three-dimensional ping sound systems, vibrating vests, click wheels with voice commands, leg strips, and shoes that applies pressure to foot.
But how do these NVIs work, specifically? Worn on the motorist’s hands is the DriverGrip – a glove interface with vibrating elements on the knuckle part that conveys instructions about how to steer, in terms of direction and intensity.
Supporting the driver is the SpeedStrip – a vibrating car seat with elements recalibrated in patterns to relay information about speed, and also instructions of how to use the pedal.
Both the DriverGrip and SpeedStrip are brilliant innovations, and could potentially offer aspiring blind drivers much greater independence. But they also suffer from what Hong calls the ‘back seat driver problem’ – the driver is essentially being told where to go and how they should drive; the car is, in effect, still self-driving – they’re just allowing the blind driver to manage some of the controls.
So Hong approached this issue by moving away from instructional devices and toward informational devices. And he came up with the AirPix – a small tablet with pressurised air vents. It works by interpreting the road environment and re-creating it using the vents; the blind driver holds their hand over all the tiny pressurised air pockets and is able to ‘visual’ the road.
The AirPix is ingenious, changing frequency and temperature to create a multi-dimensional device. It’s enabled Hong’s team to produce demonstrations of blind drivers using the ‘blind car’ vehicle to overtake, avoid road obstacles and create a route ahead.
Blind driving concerns
Hong’s car for the blind is still a prototype. It hasn’t reached the level where it’s being driven on actual public roads safely and effectively. But the fundamentals work. The car works. From here, it’s just a matter of developing the technology to the point where the driver and vehicle are ready for the road.
So it seems that blind drivers are a real possibility. But will society accept it? The concept of blind drivers raises all sorts of questions about prejudice, licences and safety. It’ll get complicated. And how will car, bike and mobility scooter insurance be affected?
There’s also the question over why we should create cars for the blind anyway when self-driving cars are developing so rapidly. Well, even if we all own self-driving cars in ten or 20 years, we’ll still occasionally want to switch over to manual and drive just for the pleasure of driving. Why shouldn’t blind person have the same opportunity?
We might also need to be able to drive manually. Would you board a self-flying plane with no pilots? Arguably, we’ll always need the back-up of manual driving skills in cases of emergencies.
If self-driving cars are decades away, why not allow blind people to drive if the ‘bind driving’ technology will get here first? Not all blind people will want to drive manually, of course, but for those that do this innovation could change their lives.
A force for good
One of the brilliant things about science and technology is that you never know what other real-world applications will emerge from research and development. Even if cars for the blind never take off (metaphorically speaking, obviously), imagine the spin-off services and products that could come out of Dennis Hong’s work: educational aids for blind students, or even safety devices for standard road cars.
There was a time, in living memory for many people, when cars driven by people with even minor disabilities seemed a bizarrely futuristic possibility. We are now in the position where people completely absent sight may be able to get behind the wheel. It’s foreseeable that at some point it might be possible for anyone to drive, regardless of their physical ability.
Dennis Hong got into robotics after being inspired by the android characters of the Star Wars universe, and is now inspiring a new generation of robotics fans with his own ground-breaking mechanical creations.
But the difference between Hong and George Lucas is that Hong’s fascinating, imaginative innovations aren’t fantasy or magic. They don’t exist a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. They’re real, tangible creations that exist here and now.
We should keep an eye on Dennis Hong; the force is strong with this one.
About the author
Andrew Tipp is a writer, blogger and editor. He has previously worked as a digital scribbler for a travel website, lifestyle magazine and youth media organisation. He has written a number of articles on issues affecting disabled motorists.