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Novel Interfaces Yield Car the Blind Can Drive [Video]

The car depends on a novel interface, that creates 3-D maps of roads using blasts of air.

Ford is about to put out the world’s strangest car. Developed by researchers at Virginia Tech, it’s based on a hybrid Escape with a unique, non-visual interface, which will allow for something we never thought possible: Blind people driving.

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The car, developed with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), is a semi-autonomous vehicle that lets blind people handle corners, rev up, brake, and avoid turning the streets into that one scene from Week End. The car’s about helping “the blind gain access to a great deal of information that has traditionally been presented only visually,” NFB President Marc Maurer said recently. Translation: Blind people are just as antsy as any freshly licensed 16-year-old to burn some rubber.

The key is machinery that captures information from the outside world and dispatches it to the driver in the car. The details are still being hammered out, but the car will rely on a range of sensor technologies that help the driver navigate the road. Among them: vibrating gloves that tell you when to speed up and slow down; a talking steering wheel that calls out when you need to turn and by how much; and an interface called AirPix (pictured up top) that shoots compressed air through a tablet, creating a map of the driver’s surroundings. Drivers then run their hands over the tablet as if they were reading Braille.

Dr. Dennis Hong of Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory helms the research, and last year, he and his student minions built a dune buggy prototype. Check out footage of test-runs below:


Of course, if the point is to make blind people more self-sufficient, you could just invest the research dollars into a robotic car that leaves little to chance. But that’s no fun. Automatic cars aren’t nearly as thrilling as grabbing the steering wheel yourself. It’s the difference between riding a bus and taking hairpin turns in a Boxster. Note in the interviews above that not a single person talked about wanting to driver to become more independent; they want to drive because it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

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The second iteration–the Ford Escape–will be unveiled at the Daytona International Speedway in January. It’ll be manned by a yet-to-be-unveiled blind person. Here’s to hoping it’s a safe trip. We can only dream that science will then devise a way to make the roads navigable for the Billy Joels of the world.

[Images courtesy of the National Federation of the Blind]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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