Retrofitted Car Puts Blind Drivers Behind the Wheel

"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.

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