On January 29th, 2011 the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the oldest and largest organization of blind people in the nation, announced that for the first time a blind individual has driven a street vehicle in public without the assistance of a sighted person. Mark Anthony Riccobono—a blind executive who directs technology, research, and
education programs for the NFB—went down in the record books as the first blind person to independently drive a car. For the NFB Blind Driver Challenge(TM) a Ford Escape hybrid was packed full with technology enabling Mr. Riccobono to successfully navigate 1.5 miles of the road course section at the Daytona International Speedway. The historic demonstration was part of pre-race activities leading up to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
The NFB Blind Driver Challenge(TM) is a research project of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute – the only research and training facility on blindness operated by the blind. The Jernigan Institute challenged universities, technology developers, and other interested innovators to establish NFB Blind Driver Challenge(TM) (BDC) teams, in
collaboration with the NFB, to build interface technologies that empower blind people to drive a car independently. The purpose of the NFB Blind Driver Challenge(TM) is to stimulate the development of nonvisual interface technology. The Virginia Tech/TORC NFB BDC team, under the direction of Dr. Dennis Hong, director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech., is the only team that has accepted the challenge. The team uses the ByWire XGVT developed by TORC technologies the research platform for the development and testing of the nonvisual interface technologies that allow a blind person to drive.
Using this technology, Mr. Riccobono not only successfully navigated the several turns of the road course but also avoided obstacles, some of which were stationary and some of which were thrown into his path at random from a van driving in front of him. Later he successfully passed the van without collision. The Ford Escape was equipped with laser range-finding censors that conveyed information to a computer inside the vehicle, allowing it to create and constantly update a three-dimensional map of the road environment. The computer sent directions to vibrating gloves on the driver’s hands, indicating which way to steer, and to a vibrating strip on which he was seated, indicating when to speed up, slow down, or stop. According to the NFB press release, Mr. Riccobono is quoted as saying: “The NFB’s leadership in the Blind Driver Challenge(TM) has taken something almost everyone believed was an impossible dream and turned it into reality. It was thrilling for me to be behind the wheel, but even more thrilling to hear the cheers from my blind brothers and sisters in the grandstands—today all of the members of the NFB helped drive us forward.”