Braille Monitor                                                    December 2009

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Driving Independence and Innovation through Imagination
The NFB Blind Driver Challenge

by Mark A. Riccobono

Mark Riccobono operates Virginia Tech’s prototype of a car that blind people can drive.From the Editor: Mark Riccobono is the executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute. This is what he says about our plans to stimulate development of a car that blind drivers can operate:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

These words spoken by President John F. Kennedy in the fall of 1962 served as the rallying cry for a tremendous technological effort which has forever changed America’s capacity for innovation—the race to be the first to the moon. If we were to substitute the words “drive a car” for the words “go to the moon,” we would have the imaginative challenge that Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, has established for the first decade of the NFB Jernigan Institute—the only research and training facility developed and directed by the blind. We have now operated a research and training institute for half a decade, and the importance of the Blind driver challenge is still difficult to grasp for some. This article is intended to build understanding of the tremendous opportunities held in this imaginative challenge, to review where we are today and how we will conquer the challenge in the next five years, and to rally our energy and resources around this initiative so that we continue to drive our own future.


A significant piece of the American culture coming out of the twentieth century is the automobile and the organization of our systems and resources around it. The car is symbolic of freedom, power, status, and mobility. Young children cannot wait until they can drive, those with cars do not know what they would do without them, and those without cars organize their resources to get one. The allure of the car and the perceived opportunities that come with driving are so strong that, when one loses the ability to drive—from blindness or some other cause—it is frequently thought to be among the worst losses one must overcome. The driving experience is so powerful that advertisers have gone to great lengths to characterize the experience using many symbols and sensations. For example, in the early part of this decade Pontiac created a commercial to illustrate its tagline, “Fuel for the Soul." Their solution was to show a woman wearing dark sunglasses driving in the desert. When the car stops, the woman gets out and extends her long white cane. This symbolic scene was intended to demonstrate the powerful connection to driving that goes beyond seeing and to emphasize how central driving is in our society by emphasizing how much the blind desire the freedom of driving.

Yet not everyone has viewed the automobile and driving as a panacea. Thousands of people have spoken out and hundreds of organizations have been formed to keep our cities walkable and to protect systems of public transportation. As Will Rogers once summarized the spirit of these efforts, “I represent what is left of a vanishing race, and that is the pedestrian.... That I am still able to be here, I owe to a keen eye and a nimble pair of legs.” Debate continues today about the impact of the automobile on our society; the effects on the environment; and, more recently, the unintended consequences of making cars silent to pedestrians.

From the beginning, vision has been one of the primary qualifications for receiving a license to drive automobiles. However, the blind have effectively developed methods of getting where they want to go, when they want to get there, without being behind the steering wheel. For decades blind people have written about the empowering philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind, pointing out that independence and freedom of movement are not solely dependent on the ability to drive. The extensive writing of leaders of the Federation has frequently used the management of getting around without a car as an example of the way blindness can be reduced to a mere inconvenience. Many blind people have owned cars and managed their use for sighted spouses, children, and others. And many blind people have actually driven cars with sighted friends in the passenger seat. For the organized blind, driving is not essential to success. However, this does not mean that blind people are uninterested in the prospect of driving. A blind-drivable vehicle appears high on the grand wish list for many blind people.

In 1999 the National Federation of the Blind began raising money to build the NFB Jernigan Institute—at the time referred to as the NFB Research and Training Institute. In response to the question of what this institute might do that would be dramatically different from current research and training for the blind, NFB President Marc Maurer speculated that the creation of technologies to empower a blind person to drive a car would be among the Institute’s imaginative projects. Dr. Maurer’s visionary outlook on a blind-drivable vehicle has always been presented with clear purpose. It is not as much the end goal of driving that is important but rather the innovative bringing together of intellectual resources and the unique experience of the organized blind.

Consider this excerpt from Dr. Maurer’s presentation to the ground breaking for the Institute in the fall of 2001: “The facility is essential, but the brick and mortar and steel cannot by themselves do what must be done. For this we must have hands—the instruments of human endeavor that carry out the imaginative essence of our being. The hands are those of researchers who will create products to expand access for the blind to information, to the transportation system, to the business community, and to other elements within our society. The hands are those of teachers who will inaugurate training programs that broaden the horizon for the blind and for others. The hands are those of contributors who have had the faith to join with us to dream of a brighter tomorrow.”

During the Institute’s grand opening celebration on January 30, 2004, the NFB put the blind driver challenge on display for the first time with a mock-up of a blind-drivable vehicle. During that occasion Dr. Maurer said in part, “As we explore new methods of understanding, the individual experiences of blind people must be a part of the pattern. We as a society must use the talents each of us possesses. If we do, it will be good for the individuals involved, but it will also serve society as a whole. Our effort today is to expand knowledge into realms that have been previously unexplored. We will use the tools that are available--those that we have built and those that we can gather from the efforts of others. But of most importance in our quest for knowledge is the spirit that we bring to the task--a spirit that longs for independence, that seeks to be a part of the community in which we live, that yearns for our talents to be employed in building that community.” This is the spirit of the NFB blind driver challenge (NFB-BDC)

What is the NFB blind driver challenge? The NFB Jernigan Institute challenges universities, technology developers, and other interested innovators to establish NFB blind driver challenge teams, in collaboration with the NFB, to build interface technologies that will empower blind people to drive a car independently. The challenge is not the development of a car that drives a blind person around. The challenge is a car that has enough innovative technology to convey real-time information about the driving conditions to the blind so that people who possess capacity, an ability to think and react, and a spirit of adventure, in addition to having the characteristic of blindness, can interpret these data and maneuver a car safely.

The purpose of the NFB blind driver challenge is to stimulate innovative nonvisual technological innovation through the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. The goals of this initiative are:

1. To establish a path of technological advancement for nonvisual access technology and close the gap between access technology and general technology.
2. To increase awareness within the university scientific community about the real problems facing the blind by providing expertise from the perspective of the blind for a difficult engineering challenge.
3. To demonstrate that vision is not a requirement for success and that the application of innovative nonvisual solutions to difficult problems can create new opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people—blind and sighted.
4. To change the public perceptions about the blind by creating opportunities for the public to view the blind as individuals with capacity, ambition, and a drive for greater independence.

The NFB-BDC is not an attempt to duplicate existing autonomous vehicle projects. While a blind-drivable vehicle will likely take advantage of systems used in autonomous vehicles, the goal is to have powerful interface systems that allow the blind person to make driving decisions independent of computer technology in the vehicle. The importance of the NFB-BDC is the path of technological innovation created by the effort to meet the end goal of independently driving a vehicle. This is not unlike the race to the moon of the 1960s. The technologies created to get the United States to the moon have had profound impact on our society. Likewise, the innovations of the NFB-BDC will forever change the way we view technologies for the blind as well as the capacity for excellence possessed by the blind themselves.

Additionally, the NFB-BDC does not replace the unwavering support of the organized blind for systems of public transportation. The goal is not to eliminate the blind from Will Rogers’s “vanishing race” of pedestrians. The blind, like the rest of society, will continue to need a variety of options for independent movement throughout our communities. Yet even after almost seventy years of work by the National Federation of the Blind, many blind people and their sighted friends and families expect very little from blind people in the way of independent travel and mobility. Despite access to systems of public transportation in many cities, many blind people have not learned the techniques of independent travel and been empowered with the understanding that blindness need not limit their freedom of movement within the community. The NFB-BDC will be one more significant blow in shattering the low expectations for the blind and expanding the horizons of public opinion about the capacity of the blind to participate fully in society. Furthermore, the NFB-BDC may innovate technologies that improve systems of public transportation in ways we have not yet imagined. In fact, it may be that soon the blind themselves, those needlessly encouraged to sit in the bus seats reserved for the handicapped, will soon be in the very front seat driving the bus.

Addison Hugen drives the prototype with Virginia Tech student Greg Jannaman along as passenger and advisor.What is the status of the NFB-BDC? For the first five years of the NFB Jernigan Institute, the blind driver challenge has served as a call to action for engineers and other bright minds to work on innovative technologies. Additionally, the challenge has helped to create a perceptual shift among technology developers about the type of technology the blind wish to have and how they intend to participate in society. A number of discussions have been held with engineers at prestigious universities, and dozens have expressed interest in the challenge.

However, to date only one university has acted on the challenge. Undergraduate students at Virginia Tech University, under the direction of innovative professor Dr. Dennis Hong, have been actively working with the NFB on the challenge. During the summer of 2009 the Virginia Tech BDC team worked with blind students in the NFB Youth Slam on the first generation of a blind-drivable vehicle, and many of the Slam students had the opportunity to drive using the first generation of the nonvisual interface.

While our progress over the first five years on this initiative has been slow, we find great encouragement in the perceptual shift that many of our engineering partners have made. It has been said that Henry Ford’s success was not as much the creation of the assembly line as it was the creation of an atmosphere in which innovation was the real product. We have been successful in changing perceptions, raising expectations, and winning the support of many bright minds. If, in the next five years of our institute, we are to achieve a blind-drivable vehicle that can cruise on the roads of America, we need to make a dramatic commitment to that end.

The 2011 Challenge

Angel Reyes, driving under sleepshades, and Greg Jannaman in the Virginia Tech prototypeThe challenge is clear, the opportunity is endless, and the time is now. The National Federation of the Blind intends to put a vehicle on the road in 2011 to bring public attention to the future full of opportunities being built through the Federation’s work in all parts of this country. We intend to organize an effort not only to put a car on the road, but to get blind people to drive it from the NFB Jernigan Institute to the NFB’s national convention in 2011. This goal will, without doubt, serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. But our collective energy and talent are up to the challenge, for the average experience of every blind person is one of frustration with the public misconceptions of their ability and a lack of innovative approaches to solving the real problems of blindness. And collectively the blind have hopes and dreams that we are turning into imaginative programs through our Jernigan Institute. The 2011 NFB blind driver challenge will accelerate that effort, push the horizons, and stimulate more innovation around nonvisual access than has ever been concentrated in one effort.

During the coming months more details about the 2011 NFB Blind Driver Challenge will be available, including the grassroots efforts that will be required of the blind of America in order to meet the goal and hit the road. The key to this effort is the fuel of our imagination, and collective energy as a movement, and a faith in our dreams for the future, a faith that Dr. Jacobus tenBroek described as “a faith that can move mountains and mount movements.” The movement in this case is, not just one touched by four tires, but one that will touch the hearts and minds of thousands in a way that will drive innovation and expand the horizons of our future.


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