Va. Tech Engineers Develop Vehicle for Blind Drivers

Thursday, July 30, 2009; 4:33 PM

A team of Virginia Tech engineers say they have developed the first vehicle that can be independently operated by a blind driver.

The modified dirt buggy gets its first public test Friday morning at the University of Maryland, where a group of blind youths will take test drives on a campus course.

The project began five years ago as a challenge from the National Federation of the Blind: Which American university could design a vehicle that would allow a blind person to drive with the same freedom as a sighted person? Virginia Tech's College of Engineering was the only taker. Students and faculty in the school's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory started building the car in 2006. Wes Majerus of Baltimore, who is blind, first tested the vehicle this summer.

The project evolved from a fully autonomous vehicle -- the kind developed this decade for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Urban Challenge -- into a more interactive model that relays data to the driver, who can then make quick decisions about direction and speed.

Advocates for the blind see the test drive as something akin to a moon landing. They hope that once the technology is perfected, attitudes and laws toward blind drivers will change.

"The big challenge for us is going to be public perception," said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. "Blind people can do all sorts of things that the public doesn't think we can do."

-- Daniel de Vise

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