Without sight since birth, Wesley Majerus never imagined he'd have the chance to drive a car on his own.
"On my 16th birthday, I was kind of bummed. But you realize it's one of those things you can't change," he said. "You adapt to the techniques of blindness."
But, earlier this month, the 28-year-old access technology expert for the National Federation of the Blind became the first blind person to drive a vehicle that does not require sight.
Designed by a team of students at the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, the retrofitted four-wheel dune buggy uses laser range finders, voice command software and other sensory technologies that help blind drivers navigate.
"At first, I was kind of nervous," Majerus said. "But once I got the hand of how it all worked, it was liberating."
The car was developed in response to a challenge issued to university students by the National Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute in 2004. Virginia Tech answered the call with a proposal in 2006 (the lone university to do so) and received a $3,000 grant to launch the project.
Under the guidance of Dennis Hong, a mechanical engineering and robotics professor, nine undergraduates designed and constructed the car.
Inspired in part by technology that powers autonomous vehicles (cars that navigate without drivers), Virginia Tech's Blind Driver Challenge Team designed a multisensory interface that scans the environment for obstacles and gives the driver non-visual cues.
For example, a vest worn by the driver vibrates on one side when the driver needs to slow down and shakes entirely when the driver needs to come to a complete stop.
The laser range finder, connected to the steering wheel, uses a laser beam to determine the car's distance from the edge of the road and other objects. As the driver accelerates the car, a voice tells him how far to turn the wheel by indicating the number of "clicks" he must make. One click corresponds to about five degrees.
Hong said that while the project is intended to help the blind, the applications could extend to the entire population.
"I get a lot of questions from people about why we are doing this," he said. "There are immediate applications, of course, the car, for people who are blind. But the spinoff potentials are huge."
Non-visual cues could be used as advanced warning systems inside regular cars for sighted people to encourage safer driving, he said.
The technology could also have non-driving applications for the blind.
Greg Jannaman, the project's team leader who just graduated from Virginia Tech, said he has been flooded with e-mails from people around the world suggesting different uses for their technology.
A blind woman e-mailed him about the possibility of fitting her walker with technology that would help her navigate city traffic more safely.
Someone else suggested using the vibrating vest and laser range finder to help low-vision farmers operate machinery in the field.
"[It's] a redundant system to help improve the quality of life," the 22-year-old Jannaman said.
Though it's just the first step, Jannaman said that the project expands the potential for blind drivers and helps change the public perception that their hope is an impossibility.