Retrofitted Car Puts Blind Drivers Behind the Wheel

Engineering students create car with multisensory interface for blind.

ByABC News
July 24, 2009, 4:55 PM

July 27, 2009— -- 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.