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Why we made a car for blind drivers

By Dennis W. Hong, Special to CNN
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Blind drivers take the wheel
  • Dennis Hong: My robotics lab is trying to build a car blind drivers can operate
  • He says the blind can use their other senses as well as technology to avoid risks
  • Hong says a car for the blind isn't the same as a car that moves totally on its own
  • The project can yield useful spinoff technologies, Hong says

Editor's note: Dennis W. Hong, an associate professor of engineering at Virginia Tech, leads RoMeLa, a robotics lab at the university that last week won a major worldwide competition in the field -- RoboCup 2011.

Blacksburg, Virginia (CNN) -- In our modern society, driving is really a necessity. It is a means of getting you to your destination wherever, whenever. Driving is also fun. Some people even consider it an expression of power. Most importantly, driving is really about freedom, about independence.

Sighted people, myself included, do it every day and take it for granted. Unfortunately, because of physical challenges, not everyone has the privilege to drive. My team of researchers wants to find a way to give the blind the ability to drive.

When we first announced that we were going to take up this challenge, many thought we were crazy, and most of the critics doubted that it could be done. Even some of my colleagues challenged us on the idea of developing a vehicle for the blind.

Watch Dennis Hong's TED Talk

The car we're developing for the blind uses a sensor to measure acceleration, cameras to detect the lanes of the road, and laser range finders. Drivers are fitted with special gloves with vibrating elements that can be used to control steering and a massage chair that conveys information about the vehicle's speed and about how best to use the gas and brake pedal. Cooking as never seen before

I've gotten hundreds of letters, e-mails, and phone calls from people around the world; many times these are to thank and congratulate us, but sometimes we get letters of strong concern and criticism.

Designing a car for blind drivers

First, many voiced their concern about the safety of this system. Some of these concerns were because people do not trust the technology, some of them because they do not trust the capability of the blind.

No system is failproof. However, this is where true engineering comes in. I would like to ask those who worry about the system failing -- when was the last time you doubted the autopilot that most likely was flying your plane during your last flight? But to reassure those who doubt the safety of the system, I say that the vehicle won't be on the public roads until proven as safe as, or safer than, today's vehicles for the sighted. And I believe this can be done.

Regarding the capability of the blind, I believe that with the right nonvisual user interfaces, once we can deliver all the information needed to safely operate the vehicle to the driver, the blind can perform as well as, or possibly even better than the sighted. Mark Riccobono, the first blind driver who drove our vehicle on the Daytona International Speedway, is a better driver than I am -- at least with this vehicle.

Second, some worried that even when the technology becomes mature enough and safe enough, the vehicle will be too expensive for people to afford. This is another realistic concern and an important one. We started this project to give freedom and independence to the blind -- and if only a few could afford the vehicle, what good would it be?

But we believe that mass production will lower the cost, as with personal computers, mobile phones, and regular automobiles. Still, this vehicle will be more expensive than a regular vehicle, and maybe a government subsidy program would be needed to make it more affordable for the masses. Building a park in the sky

Third, there were some people who questioned whether the type and amount of information being received by the driver from the nonvisual user interfaces we have developed for the vehicle would be sufficient.

As Mark mentioned in his speech at the press conference after the first public demo of the vehicle early this year, blind drivers have other sources of information beyond the DriveGrip and SpeedStrip controls. As sighted drivers do, Mark made active use of his other senses such as sound, listening to the noise the tires generate rolling over the roads, and used the sense of angular and linear acceleration perceived from his inner ear to make judgments and adjustments to the controls of the vehicle.

As a matter of fact, this project was really not a demonstration of the cutting-edge technology we have developed, but rather a true demonstration of what the blind can achieve with just a little bit of help from technology.

If one can believe that we will have fully autonomous, driverless cars in the future, which many people do, then there is absolutely no reason why one should doubt the possibility of a car driven by the blind safely on public roads.

Last, some argued that, by the time this technology becomes mature, we will have driverless vehicles, and thus we don't need this project. (Interestingly, I also got some e-mails from blind people saying that they do not want this technology. They said they would prefer to have better public transportation and wish we put more efforts and money into fully autonomous vehicle technology, as they don't want to drive and get into an accident.)

Now this is probably the most difficult and controversial question to answer, but it is a valuable argument worth thinking about. If we will have driverless cars in the future, why are we spending time and money developing a car that a blind person can drive?

The nonvisual user interfaces we develop can be used for applications other than for driving -- in everyday home appliances, in office settings, in educational settings. The possibilities of spinoff technologies are endless. Also we would like to show the world the true capability of the blind through this project. I want to inspire other scientists and engineers to develop new technology to help the blind.

The sensors we use for the blind driver challenge vehicle are almost identical to the ones we use for autonomous vehicles, and we have used for this project many of the technologies we have developed for our autonomous cars for the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. But the similarity ends there.

The focus of autonomous vehicle research is on developing intelligent vehicles, or artificial intelligence for cars in some sense, while the focus of the blind driver challenge vehicle is developing methods to convey a vast amount of information to the driver through nonvisual means, fast enough and accurately enough for safe driving. Try something new for 30 days

For those who think we should only focus our effort in developing technologies for driverless cars, my thought is that even if you ride in an autonomous vehicle, you will want to -- and sometimes have to -- switch to "manual mode" from time to time. This is true for both blind and sighted people. There will be certain situations the computer won't be able to handle, or where the driver will choose to take control just for the fun of driving.

I am sure I will buy an autonomous car for our family in the not too distant future. But even though it will be capable of driving me to my destination, I'm also sure I would love to take the wheel and drive it from time to time.

Whenever we have new students come to our lab to work on this project, I always ask them this question: "How many times in your life do you really think you will have a chance to change the world?" I believe we are doing just that through this project. As I mentioned in my TED talk, this is just the beginning. Expect to see amazing things and technologies coming soon that will change the world.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dennis Hong.

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