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If all goes according to plan, a visually-impaired driver will lap the oval at Daytona International Speedway next January, before the Rolex 24. The driver, who has yet to be selected, will be alone in the car, and in complete control of the vehicle.
It's the culmination of a project that brought together Virginia Tech University and the National Federation of the Blind in 2007. Virginia Tech engineering students took third place in a Defense Department competition that year. Their challenge was to build a driverless vehicle that could complete a series of tasks. Following that competition, they accepted a challenge from the Federation to attempt to build a car that a blind person could drive.
Version 1 was a dune buggy. It used sensors and lasers to locate obstacles, and communicated with a driver through the use of a vibrating vest. Different parts of the vest would vibrate to describe the road ahead and tell the driver when to accelerate, brake or turn.
The current version, however, is a Ford Escape. The driver will wear a set of vibrating gloves, designed to individually vibrate over each knuckle to communicate different conditions to the driver. The team has also developed a communication device it calls "AirPix." A bit like a small air hockey table, it uses burst of air through dozens of holes to build a representation of the environment around the car, allowing the driver to feel obstacles.
We're still a long way from a world where the visually impaired drive alongside people with normal vision, but advocates say the project could go a long way toward changing perceptions. Mark Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute, tells Minnesota Public Radio that perceptions of the visually impaired "will change when people see that we can do something that they thought was impossible."