The Blind Driver Challenge was created in response to an initiative by the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute to create a vehicle that a blind person could independently operate. Our team of twelve seniors makes every effort to design, build, test, and implement numerous non-visual driver interfaces onto a vehicle platform that would achieve this goal. Throughout the design process, the team recognizes the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute to “revolutionize attitudes about blindness and promote independence”. Our team hopes to create a vehicle that can increase the independence of the blind as well as work to break society’s stereotypes and create a path of technology to promote the capabilities of the blind.
Relaying desired steering angle to the driver is one of the most important aspects of the Blind Driver vehicle. A new novel technology that we have developed at RoMeLa is called DriveGrip. The DriveGrip system is an integrated approach to communicating steering angle to a blind driver during operation of the vehicle. The system consists of a pair of tactile gloves. These gloves have motors attached to each of the driver’s fingers that can be activated to vibrate that part of the driver’s hand. The system is capable of communicating a turn to the driver by activating these vibrating motors on the left hand for a left turn, and on the right hand for a right turn. More specifically, the system will gradually activate the motors as the vehicle is intended to gradually turn. In this way the motors can be turned on and off to account for the user’s subjective response to a turn. The DriveGrip system reduces response time by integrating the turn with the user’s hands. This allows them to respond to their environment in an intuitive way, without ever really having to think about what the vehicle is “saying”. This instinctual response makes a blind person capable of performing the rapid reactions needed to handle complex driving situations. DriveGrip also provides a new platform for blind technologies. The versatility of this tactile glove system also means that the motors can be used in many different patterns and, as a result, could be used for future blind access technologies.
To bridge the gap between instructional cues and informational cues, and in order to increase the independence of the driver, the team is pursuing a state-of-the-art system called AirPix. AirPix is an intuitive new device that uses compressed air to safely create a refreshable, tactile “image.” AirPix consists of a plate with a grid of nozzles through which pressurized air flows, similar to the surface of an air hockey table. The airflow to each nozzle can be individually controlled. By activating the airflow in a specific pattern, an image can be described. A blind user can then hold his hand above the plate to feel a refreshable, tactile picture. RoMeLa uses AirPix to provide a driver with an advanced “view” of his surroundings, allowing him to make his own informed driving decisions. This method greatly increases the independence of the blind driver, since he can now make decisions based on his own senses, rather than being dependent on instructions calculated and provided to him by a computer. There are also many other exciting potential applications for the device. Especially exciting is the teaching application, whereby teachers could draw a sketch on a blackboard and it would appear, updating “on the fly” in a tactile format for blind students.
The future vehicle platform that the Blind Driver Challenge Team will be using a ByWire XGV™ from TORC Technologies. TORC is a company spun off from Virginia Tech through the DARPA Grand Challenge efforts, and all of the engineers working at TORC are Virginia Tech graduates and were the key members to the success of team VictorTango at the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. The ByWire XGV™ is a converted vehicle based on the technology developed for team VictorTango’s autonomous vehicle for the DARPA Urban Challenge. Team VictorTango’s vehicle, Odin, was one of only 3 vehicles, out of an original field of 89 international teams, to successfully complete the challenge. On the hardware side, this required a safe, reliable base drive-by-wire platform capable of operating for extended periods of time. The clean, seamless conversion to include drive-by-wire capability, a fail-safe safety system, and conditioned power for additional devices such as computers and sensors were instrumental to Odin’s success. TORC has since hardened these modular components into commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products. These products, in the form of a ByWire XGV™ outfitted with both a SafeStop™ and a set of PowerHubs™ would provide an ideal development platform for the next generation BDC vehicle.