Next January, before the Rolex 24 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, a Ford Escape will drive around part of the course. The catch: its driver will be blind. The event will be a demonstration of technology developed by the US National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech). Three years ago, Virginia Tech accepted the NFB’s Blind Driver Challenge (BDC), in which engineering schools were invited to design non-visual interfaces that would allow blind people to drive. From the sounds of things, the Rolex 24 demo could be just the tip of the iceberg.

The BDC system initially incorporated a Hokuyo single plane laser range finder sensor, which gathered information about boundaries and obstacles surrounding the vehicle. This information was relayed to the driver via clicking audio cues – the location of things such as other vehicles was represented both by how many clicks were made, and the direction from which those clicks were coming. The steering wheel clicked correspondingly when turned, so drivers could tell when they had turned it far enough.

The driver also wore a tactile vest, with vertically-aligned motors resting on both sides of their chest. If the driver were exceeding the speed limit, the right side of the vest would vibrate. If a sudden stop was required, all the motors on both sides of the vest would go off.

Virginia Tech tried out the first-generation prototype of the system last summer, at the NFB Youth Slam. At that event, blind students got to drive a modified dune buggy around an enclosed course of traffic cones. The feedback received from that event led to upgrades in a new version of the system.

One of those upgrades is the DriveGrip system. Sort of a combination of the clicking steering wheel and the vibrating vest, DriveGrip incorporates a pair of gloves that house vibrating motors on each finger. When the sensor detects that a turn needs to be made, the motors gradually activate in the direction of that turn. Like those in the vest, the motors could also be used to let drivers know that they’re driving too fast, or that an emergency stop is required.

The AirPix device is another new development. It consists of a flat plate containing rows of orifices that exude pressurized air, not unlike the surface of an air hockey table. By holding their hand over this plate, blind drivers can obtain a tactile, constantly-changing “image” of their surroundings.

Once installed in the Ford Escape, the Virginia Tech BDC team would also like to upgrade to a multi-pane laser range finder, designed specifically for automotive applications. Beyond the demonstration at Daytona, they hope to get a group of blind drivers to pilot the vehicle from Baltimore, Maryland to Orlando, Florida, for the NFB’s national convention next spring.