Braille Monitor                         February 2021

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The NFB Blind Driver Challenge: Accelerating in 2021

by Mark Riccobono

Mark Riccobono getting into the Blind Driver Challenge vehicleOn January 29, 2011, the National Federation of the Blind, through our Blind Driver Challenge, demonstrated not just the capacity but the need and benefit of the active participation of blind people in the design, development, and implementation of innovative technology that would change the world. The Blind Driver Challenge was not an initiative to develop a car that could drive blind people around; the challenge was to cultivate partnerships with researchers and technology developers to work with the blind to develop technologies and strategies that would provide information about the environment in a nonvisual manner that would allow a blind person to make driving decisions and independently operate an automobile. We were successful, and we continue this work as our Blind Driver Challenge evolves into the design and development of nonvisual autonomous vehicle technology.

To accomplish our initial goal, the NFB found true partners with a group of creative Virginia Tech University engineering students led by Paul D’Angio, under the instruction of world-renowned robotics scientist professor, Dr. Dennis Hong of ROMELA; and the pioneering engineers of TORC Robotics, led by autonomous engineering expert Michael Fleming. A host of our members offered their experience and expertise to collaborate on the design and development of the nonvisual interfaces that used haptic feedback through gloves and a modified car seat that were installed into a Ford Escape Hybrid equipped with GPS, LIDAR, and cameras. This is truly a demonstration of the value that the blind offer in the design and development of nonvisual technology, and I was proud to further demonstrate our capacity by driving our Blind Driver Challenge vehicle safely and independently on the Daytona International Speedway. You can see the audio described video of this groundbreaking achievement at: https://blinddriverchallenge.org/.

As we navigate through the world without sight, blind people must implement a variety of nonvisual tools and strategies that empower us to be fully participating members of our communities. Furthermore, our Structured Discovery Training methodology builds on our lived experience and focuses on the development and acquisition of problem-solving skills that enhance the design process.

The NFB’s Blind Driver Challenge vehicle on the Daytona racetrack on January 29, 2011

Far too many times, engineers approach us with what they felt would be a life changing device for blind people, only to find that their time and resources have been wasted. Without the active participation of the blind, there would have been no innovative technology, only utilization of existing technology with a token blind person behind the wheel.

Our Blind Driver Challenge, a truly collaborative research project with the active participation of the blind, resulted in a paradigm shift in the use of nonvisual means to operate a vehicle and was the beginning of our involvement in the development of autonomous vehicle technology. Our experience has demonstrated our expertise in the design of accessible technology, and as a result, we have several partnerships with industry leaders and researchers currently designing and developing autonomous vehicles. So yes, we are now working toward the development of cars to drive blind people around, but these will be the cars that drive everyone around. Moreover, our active participation in the process will serve as the catalyst for the introduction of features that enhance the experience for every passenger.  

When technology is designed to be nonvisually accessible, it benefits everyone. Multimodal access to technology through sight, touch, hearing etc. makes it possible for anyone to better use the devices in a variety of ways. Currently, it is easier and safer for a driver to manipulate the various functions like the radio, temperature controls, and other settings nonvisually so that they can maintain a focus on the road. Additionally, rather than looking at a screen, most drivers listen to their GPS. Of course, with the implementation of autonomous vehicle technology, even the vigilance currently necessary to drive will be complemented or eliminated through the implementation of nonvisual technology. 

Our Daytona Blind Driver Challenge demonstration changes the perceptions of blindness held by society, including the perceptions held by the blind ourselves. It was an affirmation that we have the ability to use our intellectual capacity to innovate and create technology that benefits the world. Although the maximum speed reached during the demonstration was about thirty miles per hour, we realize that the blind can travel even faster, and the need for urgency in the implementation of accessibility in emerging technology is even greater, so we are accelerating our Blind Driver Challenge in 2021.

January 29, 2021, marked the tenth anniversary of our Blind Driver Challenge. Now it is time to accelerate our work with new partners in an exciting public demonstration of the value of collaboration with the blind in the development of innovative driving technology. By accelerating our Blind Driver Challenge in 2021, we are reaffirming our commitment to increasing the speed at which we move toward the design, development, and implementation of accessible technology that presents us with opportunities to live, work, and play as active members of society. Members of the National Federation of the Blind realize that as we seek to innovate new improved accessible tools and strategies to facilitate our equal participation, we simultaneously improve opportunities for others to be more productive and achieve greater quality of life. Therefore I invite those creative minds that want to challenge the perception of what is possible to join with the NFB toward driving the development of technology that is accessible to all to contact Mr. Anil Lewis, executive director of blindness initiatives, at 410-659-9314, extension 2374 or [email protected].

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