USU employee helps with prototype car for the blind

Reprinted with permission of
The Herald Journal

By Kevin Opsahl, staff writer

An employee at the Center for Persons with Disabiltieis at Utah State Uiversity has thrown his two cents into a newly-developed prototype care that is accessible exclusively to the blind.

Sachin Pavithran, an assistive technology specialist and the disability law and policy coordinator for the USU-CPD, was on the National Federation for the Blind's research and development committee that gave input into the design of the prototype. The technology that grew out of the NFB's "Blind Driver Challenge" will be featured on the NBC Today Show.

The vehicle, a modified Ford Escape, debuted Jan. 29 at the Rolex 24 in a pre-race demonstration at Daytona. Driver Mark Anthony Riccobono not only navigated 1.5 miles of the course but also avoided obstacles.

"It's a very good start, but we've got a long way to go," Pavithran siad. "The whole idea was not for us to have this car ready and right away have a bunch of blind people driving around. It's done to see what can be done to overcome the obstacle of blindness. We  truly believe with the right tools you can overcome blindness and do anything you want to do. So, it's one thing to prove that blindness should not be an obstacle."

The prototype was ultimately designed by a team of 12 undergraduate and two graduate students led by Dennis Hong of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech. The project's development took two to three years.

It certainly came a long way from a "dune buggy-type" car to a modified Ford when it debuted, said Pavithran.

This prototype allows a blind driver to make all of the driving decisions on their own--with the use of lasers and DriveGrip, or gloves that vibrate on the knuckles to signal how to steer; there's also a technology called SpeedStrip, a vibrating seat that communicates speed information.

Hong said in a CPD newsletter that he does not expect the technology to be commercially available anytime soon. Pavithran agrees.

"It's going to take more infrastructure and education of people," Pavithran said. "People are not going to be very keen about blind people driving on the road. I mean, you have people with low vision driving--the elderly population--that's already scary for a lot of people. But a blind person?"

Pavithran said a commercialized car might have to make some decisions for the blind driver automatically, due to certain obstacles. He also believes that a final product would be a one-size-fits-all automobile that even the non-blind could drive.

For now, Hong expects "spin-off" technologies to emerge from other major companies.

Hong added, "This (the blind car) is not going to be a real product until it is proven as safe as or safer than a car for sighted people."

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