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Sightless Driver Leads Pack at Daytona

High-tech car allows Mark Riccobono navigate race course.

by on Feb.01, 2011

Blind driver Mark Riccobono on the Daytona track in a specially modified Ford Escape.

While Mark Riccobono’s turn on the track at Daytona was a solo affair, he’s still dreaming of the day he’ll be able to actually participate in the grueling 24-hour race that marks the start of the U.S. motor sports season.

He certainly got off to a good start as the first blind driver to successful navigate the course using a specially-designed Ford Escape developed by a group of students at Virginia Tech and partially sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind.

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The modified Ford uses a technology called “non-visual interfaces” to allow a blind driver to “see” what’s happening on the road around the vehicle and maneuver – steer, brake and accelerate – just like a sighted motorist.  Among the systems Riccobono used to navigate the 1.5-mile course was a device called AirPix, which uses puffs of air to create a “map” of the vehicle’s surroundings that can be sensed with the hand.  He also wore vibrating gloves.

Many of the specific systems in use on the modified Escape were previously used on a Virginia Tech entry into the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge.  Part of an ongoing series of “races” by the defense research group, the Challenge was aimed at developing fully autonomous vehicles that could drive on their own, without human intervention, on an extended course.