This month, Daytona International Speedway isn't just about racing. A unique car that enables blind people to drive will be unveiled there Jan. 29.
The car, a modified Ford Escape Hybrid, features special sensors, computers and interfaces that help it gain an unprecedented understanding of its road environment -- and even enable the driver to make his or her own decisions. It was designed by engineers and students at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, College of Engineering in Blacksburg, Va.
How does it work? According to the Vancouver Sun, the first step is the sensors, which include lasers and cameras.
"The laser shoots around, scans the environment and makes a map around the vehicle," said Dr. Dennis Hong, an associate professor in the mechanical engineering department. "The camera system looks all around the vehicle by using some very sophisticated computer vision algorithms to identify and classify objects so that the vehicle knows ... a tree is over there, a rock is over here."
The sensor information enables the car's computer to create a virtual map of the environment. It then interfaces with the driver when necessary:
Special driving gloves, for example, vibrate across each knuckle to let the vehicle's operator know how sharply to turn, while speed strips, which vibrate along the driver's legs and back, indicate how much to accelerate, says Anil Lewis, director of strategic communications with the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, Md.
One interface, for example, is the AirPix, a small tablet-like device with holes on it. Compressed air comes out from these holes and forms an image of what is around the vehicle.
"You put your hand over it and feel these are the roads. That's a tree over there; there is a moving vehicle to my right," says Hong. "The computer provides information about the vehicle so that it is you, the driver, who makes active decisions," he adds. "That is the concept."