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.
Multisensory Interface Provides Non-Visual Cues
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.
Technology Could Have Non-Driving Applications
"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.
Top Inconvenience for Visually Impaired: Transportation
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.
"The fundamental aspect of it is to raise awareness for the possibility of something so ground-breaking," he said. "You can imagine the public response -- sighted drivers see it as unnecessary. ... But not to [the blind]. To them, it's something that should have been done a long time ago."
Roger Keeney, a 62-year-old Georgia man, agrees.
For about 25 years of his life, he could hit the road on his own. But since a farming accident in 1990 took his sight, he has had to rely on friends, family and public transportation to get around.
"After you work through the problems of being blind, you realize that blindness is not a disability, it's an inconvenience," he said. "And the top three inconveniences are transportation, transportation, transportation."
In May, after responding to a campaign from the Ford Motor Co. timed to the launch of its 2010 Mustang, Keeney had a chance to face his frustration and reclaim independence. The "10 Unleashed" campaign asked consumers to submit their "Mustang dream experiences." Keeney wrote about his desire to drive again and was one of 10 chosen to live out their fantasies.
Public Perception, Laws Need to Change
As racecar driver Tommy Kendall told him when and where to turn, Keeney zipped around a racetrack in Phoenix, sometimes hitting 90 mph.
"It was bringing back memories from 30 years ago. Memories I didn't expect were still there," he said. "It was a dream to drive."
Not only was the experience personally satisfying, he said it underscored the need for both the blind and the sighted to witness and experience "the impossible."
With respect to Virginia Tech's advances, he said, "I would love to go the whole direction. I would like to see it available in a way we could honestly, independently travel, drive, get from point A to point B.
"However, it's going to take a while for society to accept that," he continued. "They're going to have to see these technologies work in the real world before they come out of their fear shell and let a blind person drive on their own."
And changing that public perception is part of the reason the National Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute launched the initiative in the first place.
Driving Challenge Stimulated Ideas to Empower Blind People
"One of the biggest problems with stimulating innovative technologies is the public misconception that blind people are sighted people who are broken," said Mark Riccobono, the Jernigan Institute's executive director. "This was a way to stimulate the brightest thinkers and the brightest engineers to think about technology that empowers blind people to be independent."
Although he was impressed with Virginia Tech's vehicle, he said the big victory was the shift in their thinking. Instead of constructing a computer-led car that just transported a blind person, the team created a vehicle that allowed the blind driver to take in information and make their own decisions, he said.
And, ultimately, he said that shift will lead to greater benefits for all.
Technology that doesn't assume sight doesn't only help the blind, he said. For example, touchscreen control panels in cars aren't just obstacles for blind people, they're also unsafe for the sighted, as they require the driver to pull his eyes from the road to see what he's doing.
Physical buttons that rely on the sense of touch would be a better design for everyone, he said. Although it might be easier for a sighted driver to look at the buttons to manipulate them, if he needed to change a control while driving, he could still feel his way around instead of looking away from the road.
In the same way, he continued, a dynamic steering wheel that gives a driver more than just visual cues could further enhance on-the-road safety.
"We have the potential to pull society away from this idea that vision is a requirement for success. Why aren't we thinking multisensory?," he asked. "As we create this technology, this interface for the car, there will be applications for everyone."