Braille Monitor                                                 March 2011

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Blind Driver: Ultimate Insult or Statement of Fact

by Gary Wunder

Mark Riccobono drives the NFB’s blind-drivable car around the track at the Daytona Speedway.Being blind presents many challenges for the person who intends to live a full and normal life, and getting where one needs to go when he or she wants to get there is foremost among them. Ask any blind person to tell you what is most difficult or irritating about being blind, and transportation is likely to be number one on the list. Whether a person has been blind from birth or had vision before becoming blind, the desire to have the independence that most people who drive a car enjoy is universal. So too has been the belief that there is nothing we can do about it short of the restoration of vision.

In 2000 President Maurer asked us to dream about what we might do as together we built the Jernigan Institute, the nation's first and only research center run for and by the blind. He suggested two possibilities. One would be a handheld reading machine portable enough to let us read print wherever we might go and wherever we might find it. The second was a car that a blind person could drive. While the possibility of a handheld reader seemed remote to many of us who had scanners and desktop computers, and even more remote to those who couldn't afford the technology available at the turn of the century, at least we could envision how the device might work and the technology it might use. But this blind-drivable car was a stretch--a very big stretch—and, while we all wanted what it promised, we were reluctant to commit to the dream. We had many reasons for applauding the change it could bring in our lives but held tight to our reservations. For one thing many of us knew what it was like to be told that one day, in the not too distant future, science would come up with a way for us to drive.

For as far back as I can remember, my parents called me to listen to news stories they had just read in the Kansas City Star promising vision: a device to convert images to audio; a device with a TV camera and vibrating pins to make a picture on the back of a blind person's neck; and, most promising, an implant that would connect directly to the brain with nothing more intrusive than a pair of glasses. Our discussion of each new device would conclude with the confident assertion that "By the time you turn sixteen, there's no question that science will find a way for you to drive." That was easy to believe at six; it was exciting at eight; when ten came around, I was still anxiously waiting; when twelve came, I was still optimistic but nervous; at fourteen I knew something had to happen in a hurry, but those fellows were going to the moon, so perhaps there was still a chance. But sixteen came, and the technology did not. Eighteen came and with it the right to vote, but the car was still for someone else to drive, and it was hard to watch my younger brother getting an opportunity his big brother was supposed to have had first. Twenty-one came, and with it the lectures about not drinking and driving, but the cautions meant nothing to me except that I should not ride with someone who was drinking.

Most blind people who lived through my experience looked at the technology available and gave up on the dream. Driving might be possible someday, but we weren't making any of our plans for the future contingent on it. Driving, that special dream we held so dear, soon became the example of the very few things a blind person couldn't do, taking its place alongside jet pilot and art critic. Some of us even thought piloting an airplane or recasting a painting so it would be understandable through touch would be easier than the act of driving a speeding vehicle down a crowded street.

So, when President Maurer asked us to consider a car that blind people could drive, we cheered his can-do attitude, gave him credit for believing in us as blind people and trying to expand the frontier of possibility for the blind, and said to ourselves that we had to be realistic. Our experience said be cautious. Our hearts said don't do this again. Our left brain said the challenge of driving was much too difficult to take in all of the parallel information required to stay on course, watch other drivers, and be on guard for the pedestrian; so we told President Maurer that we shouldn't devote a lot of time and energy to this work and that our time would be better spent on things that seemed more achievable. As long as we could identify problems in education and equal access to technology and an unemployment rate of seventy percent for blind people, we could avoid saying that we didn’t think the blind would ever be capable of driving and that we doubted that the organized blind could bring about the invention to make it possible.

So we built our reading machine and watched as it was transformed from a three-part handheld device to a reader in our pockets. With its success we once again found ourselves talking about a car the blind could drive. We had done what people said was impossible: we helped to invent a machine that could go where we wanted to go and read most of what we wanted to read, but the confidence gained from that venture went only so far. Holding a camera above a printed page was not nearly as challenging as directing a vehicle weighing thousands of pounds at speeds that would demand split-second reactions.

Once again President Maurer asked what we thought about developing a car blind people could drive, and again we said we thought other things were more important. When he assured us that anything we did to create a blind-drivable car would not come at the expense of the efforts we were making to secure better education, better technology, and increased employment, we thought to ourselves that we had reached a good compromise and ducked a bullet. We didn't have to tell our strongest advocate and the man we deeply admired that we thought this well beyond the capabilities of the blind and our organization. Instead we could argue to the public that this was something we were working on, certain this little nugget would get us some much needed press, but most of us felt sure that so little resource would be devoted to the idea of a vehicle that it would die a slow death.

People who lived through and can remember the most famous decade of the twentieth century, the 60s, saw clear parallels between the challenge to send a man to the moon and the challenge to put a blind driver behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Before the technology was the dream, and before the dream could move beyond the musings and fantasies kept safely inside, it had to be publicly articulated by someone brave or foolish enough to think the far-off possibility could become reality. Like the dream the technological advancement continued, and so too did the message that we were going to develop a car that the blind could drive. Though the blind-drivable car didn't always make the presidential reports and the banquet speeches, we were all aware of efforts to interest other groups who wanted to see a change in the way the world drives. Insurance companies want cars that can help their drivers avoid collisions. The military wants a car that can drive itself through dangerous territory. Every car manufacturer would like to be the first to boast new technology to make the driving experience easier and more enjoyable, and for every competition aimed at changing how America drives, we were there and pitched our idea that one day there would be a car that the blind could drive.

Eventually we realized that, while the convergence of these technologies could contribute to a blind-drivable car, it would take our direct involvement to create it. That effort couldn't be an unintended spin-off of something someone else wanted; it would have to be something we created because the blind wanted it and were determined to make it happen. We started looking for partners who knew about the state of the art in auto safety and navigation and challenged them to learn about us and join with us to build the car of our future. Virginia Tech answered the challenge, and with the work of its innovative students under the guidance of Dr. Dennis Hong, we began work on developing the interface that would let a blind person drive a car.

Eventually that work turned into a promise: one we made to ourselves, and one we made publicly and without equivocation. We were going to develop a car that the blind could drive, and we were going to demonstrate it before a crowd of tens of thousands. With a date certain and our intentions broadcast on the Internet, the cable news channels, and newspapers across the country, the question was not would the blind really try to do it, but would they succeed. The time for talk was over; the test was at hand, so the blind, hundreds of us, came to Daytona, daring to dream, daring to believe, and daring to put the integrity of our organization on the line to send a message to all who cared to listen: we, the National Federation of the Blind, are prepared not only to identify the problems faced by blind people, but we are prepared to lead the way in developing the technology to solve them.

Anil Lewis speaks at the podium during the Blind Driver Challenge™.On Friday evening, January 28, approximately three-hundred-sixty people gathered at the Plaza Ocean Hotel to prepare for our time on the track, which would happen in sixteen hours. Who would drive? How had he or she been selected? How would we get to the event, where would we sit, and how would we know what was happening as the demonstration progressed? President Maurer, John Paré, and the real celebrities of the evening and the weekend that followed, Mark Riccobono and Anil Lewis, answered these and other questions. President Maurer explained that, in the weeks preceding this event, five blind people had been tested with simulators and in the two modified vehicles with the technology we had developed. He was one of the people who learned and was tested using the technology. He was not, however, one of the finalists in the competition to drive the car because this decision was based not on politics but on skill.

There were a number of theories about who would have the advantage in learning to drive using this nonvisual technology. Some speculated that, because they had once had sight and had driven, they would have the advantage. Others thought that, having been blind since birth, they would have the advantage in learning and using the interface. It turns out that neither of these factors seemed to be significant, though youth may have played a part. Mark Riccobono was chosen to drive on the 29th in Daytona and Anil Lewis was selected as his backup or, as Anil liked to say, our insurance--ensuring we would get press coverage, ensuring things would go smoothly, and ensuring we had a willing and able driver should Mark be unable to maneuver our vehicle through its victory lap. When Mark addressed the group, he told us that what would happen tomorrow was not because of the competence of one but the competence of many. "I am not the focus: I am the representative of the thousands of blind people who believe enough to make this happen." Bringing a bit of levity, Mark said, "Since the announcement people have asked me if I'm nervous, and I've said no, but today it occurred to me that I'm the one person here who can really screw things up. Now that makes me a little nervous."

On Saturday morning seven buses headed for the Daytona Speedway, and the excitement was evident in every conversation. "What do you think he's feeling right now?" "In one way I'd love to be Mark Riccobono, and in another I wouldn't have his job today for anything."

So that we could be sure not to miss the event, most of us arrived by 9:00. In the Sprint Fan Zone Federationists took front-row seats, which we commissioned the NFB Grandstand. Once we knew where to sit, most decided to use the two and a half hours before the Blind Driver Challenge™ to explore. This was Daytona, one of the racing capitals of the world; what were the chances we would ever come back to see it again? Wasn't the whole point of this adventure to show that the blind were on the move? A carnival had been set up just outside the speedway featuring rides; games; and, of special interest to yours truly, a stand selling funnel cakes, though I passed them up for a healthier breakfast.

The mix of people was exciting. It was not the traditional one-blind-guy-in-a-crowd, but neither was it an NFB convention, where everybody used a cane or a dog. Some visitors were fascinated by what we were doing at the speedway and were excited by our vehicle, while others were clearly there because their thing was racing, and the sooner it began the better. The buzz among the blind people present was not only the demonstration to come, but what they had heard on Friday evening. As a breakfast companion said, "I came because I’m a team player and because I support what we do, but I don't think what we are doing really connected with me until I heard Mark Riccobono talk about the feeling he had when he buckled in his children, kissed his wife as she sat in the front seat, and took his place in the driver's seat to take his family for a ride. I know it's not tomorrow or next week or even next year, but I think at that moment I began to see the real possibility this initiative has to change my life and those of other blind people."

As 11:30 approached, we returned to the grandstands to listen as Kevan Worley addressed the crowd to explain some of the technology. He told the crowd about the seat strip which is used to indicate whether to accelerate, slow down, or stop, and the gloves, or Drive Grips, used to provide information for directing the car. If the car should go left, there is a vibration in the left drive grip, and the extent to which the steering wheel should be turned is communicated by the intensity of the vibration and how many fingers are stimulated.

Finally the event began when Mark Riccobono was driven to the track in the lead van, and Congressman John Mica of Florida’s seventh district drove the blind-drivable car onto the track. Mr. Mica chairs the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. President Maurer accompanied Congressman Mica, and, when they got out of the car and Mr. Mica handed the key to Mark Riccobono, the adrenaline began to flow and the long-awaited event was at hand.

Virginia Tech Professor Dennis Hong, NFB President Marc Maurer, and Florida Congressman John Mica stand on the track.In the booth with Kevan Worley were two announcers employed by the Daytona Speedway, Larry Henry and Jim Mueller, who helped by telling us what they saw as Mark got in the car, put on his Drive Grips, and checked out the technology he was about to debut. As Mark readied the vehicle for its historic trip, Kevan and his announcing crew talked about the difference between a vehicle that drives the blind and a vehicle driven by the blind. Kevan clearly explained the difference, but the astonishment of the Daytona announcers captured the fascination of sighted people at the thought that a person without sight would try to drive safely through a slalom course of barrels; poles; and, later, boxes thrown at random from the lead van.

When Mark hit the gas and began his historic journey, the emotions we felt were mixed. We were elated that one of our own was behind the wheel of a car that we had brought into being, but at the same time we all knew we were dealing with new, experimental technology. What if it failed? Yes, we could tell the world that for its first debut it had done pretty well, but what footage would be shown if Mark brushed a pole or knocked over a barrel? Could we really expect and would the public demand a perfect run? As the car got moving, Federationists in the crowd were torn between cheering and hearing. The announcers provided our view as the car progressed through the horseshoe turns and around obstacles and eventually arrived in front of the grandstand, where most of us could no longer contain the roar within us. When the lead van started throwing boxes and our car moved to avoid them, cheers from other parts of the speedway reached our ears, and the feeling inside each of us was beyond the ability of words to convey.

When Mark accelerated passed the lead vehicle and crossed the finish line, the crowd went wild with cheers and applause. We all knew we had witnessed something historic, and the joy and relief we felt created a special bond that few experiences in my life have been able to match.

When we gathered for the press conference, reporters from Orlando and as far away as Tokyo, Japan, were there to hear from our president, the blind driver, and members of the technology team who worked with us to make all of this possible. The press understood the technological accomplishment and marveled at how a person without sight could drive on a track and avoid striking fixed and moving obstacles, but it is doubtful any of them could really understand what this first step might mean to the blind in education, employment, and greater integration. As we read the comments about this event, it is clear that even some blind people fail to see the significance of this step: what it means technologically and what it means for the blind as we struggle to redefine what we had thought to be the fixed and immutable limitations that would be our lifelong companions. The struggle of the blind to guide our own vehicles is nothing more or less than the struggle of the test pilots who, when they became astronauts, demanded to fly their spacecrafts and refused to be Spam in a Can. They were not content to be mere passengers and were convinced that, if that was all NASA wanted, it could keep sending monkeys into space.

Driving a car is a powerful symbol, and in the end it matters very little whether we are licensed to drive generation twelve of the blind driver vehicle, Google 26.2, or something none of us can yet envision. The most popular science fiction writers of the last century failed to anticipate the personal computer, email, and the cellular phone. They saw taxi cabs with automation that could bring them to passengers and whisk them away without their ever having to turn a wheel or push a throttle, but those cabs were called by landline phones housed in phone booths. The blind can't expect to fare any better in predicting the future than the writers whose business it is to pull us into that future, but we certainly can and should be expected to act forcefully in the present to address problems as we find them and look hard for solutions that might one day consign those problems to the history books. Might this event have begun the process of changing our language so that the term “blind driver” might one day move from insult to statement of fact?

More immediate than the car we may drive on the streets and highways of our nation are a host of applications waiting for technological solutions our pioneering work might address. Virtual tours are becoming popular for the sighted. If our technology can provide a platform to let us navigate through virtual reality, think of the possibilities that open for the blind. Imagine being able to tour a house listed by a local realtor as sighted people so often do now. Imagine using a version of the handgrips to explore the texture of the shag carpet or the smooth, aged feeling of a wooden floor. Imagine being able to wear headphones, walk into one of the rooms, snap your fingers, and instantly know its size the way we do when we visit new places now. Imagine going on safari and romping with lions and tigers, never having to fear the loss of life or limb because you want to touch them as they run and play.

I have had more than a fair shot at conveying to you my impressions of our Blind Driver Challenge™, and, in bringing our coverage to its conclusion, allow me to give you a direct link to audio-video coverage of the event and to reprint what others have thought, felt, and taken the time to send.  Watch the blind driver in action by going to <> (provided with assistance from Blind Bargains).  For more videos, go to <>.

"To me it was an important day because we moved from wishing, hoping, and praying that one day we would be able to drive, to knowing that one day in the foreseeable future we will be able to drive.”

Another writer said: "For the blind this event represents so much more than just being able to drive a car. The Blind Driver Challenge not only shatters misconceptions about the capabilities of the blind, it provides a means to develop new technologies that will help the blind become more independent on and off the road and make the world safer as a whole. GPS was a technology originally developed for the military, but now hardly anyone can live without it in some form. Many of the technologies used to make a car accessible to the blind could have this same ripple effect, and I was excited to be a part of this momentous beginning and also cover it for Blind Bargains."

Another writer said: "Maybe one way to explain this to Monitor readers is to describe what it was like to listen to the audio of the Blind Driver Challenge over the Internet. When I heard the announcer describe what was happening, I experienced the same thrill I did when listening to radio broadcasts of rocket launches at the beginning of the space program. We hadn't landed on the moon yet, and we didn't have the space shuttle, but still there was this incredible sense of excitement and looking forward to the future."

Another thoughtful observation is found in this extended comment: "While I'm in favor of having a vehicle that can drive around autonomously, I take exception to the notion that a computer is smarter than I am and that it can drive better than I can in all situations. The problem with blindness in almost all cases is that it presents a barrier to information. Given enough information in a timely manner, there's no doubt in my mind that blind people will be better drivers and make better decisions on the road than any computers we can dream up today. The challenge is how to circumvent the information barrier that blindness presents. The notion that a car can drive itself better and with greater dexterity than a person can is similar to the notion that guide dogs take their owners to where they want to go. This is not true. Guide dogs are a very sophisticated and highly individualized tool that blind people use to enhance their travel skills.

“The purpose of the Blind Driver Challenge is to foster the creation of tools and information systems that will make it possible for a blind person to drive a vehicle among their sighted colleagues. The key word here, for me, is 'information systems.’ If tools and techniques can be developed that give blind people enough information so that they can drive a vehicle independently, those same information systems can be used to get blind people jobs, a better education, and a host of other things.

“Our philosophy is that, given the proper training, tools, and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a mere nuisance. If we can get around the information barrier that blindness presents, I believe all the other issues related to blindness will be much easier to resolve. The Blind Driver Challenge is about much more than driving, and, by the time this project is done, we will know a lot more about how to drive, yes; but we will also know a lot more about how the blind gather and use information and how to get more information into a blind person's head in a timely manner. The Blind Driver Challenge is as much about education and expectation as it is about technology. Eyesight is a very high-bandwidth informational medium. Technology for the sighted is using increasingly greater percentages of that bandwidth. As it does, blind people's ability to get at that data in a timely enough manner to remain competitive with their sighted colleagues falls behind. We need to do what we can to close that information gap. The Blind Driver Challenge™ is an attempt to address that issue. For that reason I believe we should support the Blind Driver Challenge so that we can continue to change what it means to be blind even as the world changes what it means to be sighted."

As a final quote I leave you with this: "For my part, I have seen history, real dramatic history, made only a few times in my life. I remember President Kennedy being shot. I watched in awe and was enraptured when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon. I was in the World Trade Center and was a part of all the events of 9-11. For blind people the event on January 29, 2011, was just as dramatic. Never in history has a blind person independently driven a car, much less in public. We all were in the car with Mark Riccobono, and we shared his joy and triumph. The success of Daytona was for every blind person because we had the dream and we made it happen. Teamwork doesn't get better than this."

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