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Imagine if you were in traffic and noticed the car next to you was being operated by someone blind.   Thanks to some undergrads from Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory, it will soon be a reality.

After being the only academic institution to answer the challenge proposed by the National Federation of the Blind’s Jernigan Institute, in 2006, a group of undergrads from Virginia Tech received a $3,000 grant  to start the partnership which evolved into the Blind Driver Challenge (BDC).

The crew started the initiative by taking an all-terrain dune buggy and transforming it into a semi-autonomous vehicle. The car is equipped with laser range finding, voice and sensory technology.

How does the vehicle work? The steering wheel is hooked up to a distance monitor that gathers information from laser range finders. Voice software is used to direct the driver every second on exactly how far to turn the steering wheel.

For example, the monitor will tell the driver “turn left three clicks.” As the driver does that, the monitor makes three clicking noises. A vibrating vest provides cues to follow when accelerating and decelerating. The vest will vibrate in various spots–the back, abdominal area and the shoulders–to relay a variety of commands. When a driver needs to “Hit the brakes!” the entire vest will vibrate to a fare-thee-well!

To implement the BDC system, the vehicle was taken around Virginia Tech’s parking lot and navigated through a closed course defined by traffic cones–maxing out at a speed of about 20 mph.

The BDC team hopes, that the driving event will increase the awareness of blind drivers across the country and work to break stereotypes of the abilities of the blind.

Currently, plans are on the way to implement the BDC system into a Ford Escape Hybrid SUV. There are 13 students working diligently to re-create the vehicle, so that numerous blind motorists could drive from Baltimore, MD. to Orlando, FL. in May 2011 for the National Federation of the Blind’s National Convention with intermittent stops for fundraising events and media showings.