The NFB introduced this car as a game simulation in last year's July
Blind Man Drives Car Independently
Avoids Dynamic Obstacles
Daytona Beach, Florida
(January 29, 2011):
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the oldest and largest
organization of blind people in the nation, announced today that for the
first time a blind individual has driven a street vehicle in public without
the assistance of a sighted person. Mark Anthony Riccobono, a blind
executive who directs technology, research, and education programs for the
organization, was behind the wheel of a Ford Escape hybrid equipped with
nonvisual technology and successfully navigated 1.5 miles of the road course
section of the famed track at the Daytona International Speedway.
The historic demonstration was part of pre-race activities leading up to the
Rolex 24 At Daytona this morning. Mr. Riccobono not only successfully
navigated the several turns of the road course but also avoided obstacles,
some of which were stationary and some of which were thrown into his path at
random from a van driving in front of him. Later he successfully passed the
van without collision. The Ford Escape was equipped with laser
range-finding censors that conveyed information to a computer inside the
vehicle, allowing it to create and constantly update a three-dimensional map
of the road environment. The computer sent directions to vibrating gloves
on the driver's hands, indicating which way to steer, and to a vibrating
strip on which he was seated, indicating when to speed up, slow down, or
Mr. Riccobono said: "The NFB's leadership in the Blind Driver ChallengeT has
taken something almost everyone believed was an impossible dream and turned
it into reality. It was thrilling for me to be behind the wheel, but even
more thrilling to hear the cheers from my blind brothers and sisters in the
grandstands; today all of the members of the NFB helped drive us forward.
It is for them and for all blind Americans that the National Federation of
the Blind undertook this project to show that blind people can do anything
that our sighted friends and colleagues can do as long as we have access to
information through nonvisual means. Today we have demonstrated that truth
to the nation and the world."
Blind Driver To Debut New Technologies At Daytona
by The Associated Press
Mark Riccobono talks with Anil Lewis of the National Federation of the Blind
at the Daytona Speedway Wednesday Jan. 26, 2011. Riccobono is blind and he
is using nonvisual technologies to drive a car. (
Mark Riccobono climbs into a vehicle to test nonvisual technologies
Wednesday Jan. 26, 2011 at Daytona International Speedway. Riccobono is
blind and was selected to drive the vehicle by the National Federation of
the Blind as part of its Blind Driver Challenge. The challenge encouraged
universities and colleges to create technology that would assist blind
people to drive. (
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. January 28, 2011, 11:11 am ET
It's a cloudy morning at Daytona International Speedway, but Mark Riccobono
can't tell, nor does it really matter to him.
He walks up to the driver's side of a black, Ford Escape Hybrid parked on
the start-finish line, opens the door, sits down and adjusts his seat. After
a few minutes the car revs up and takes off.
None of that's unusual at one of the meccas of motorsports racing, except
for one thing: Riccobono is blind.
Saturday, Riccobono will take part in a public demonstration, driving
independently with the help of new nonvisual technology and a specially
modified car. The event, spearheaded by the the National Federation of the
Blind, is part of the pre-race activities of Saturday's Rolex 24 event at
Daytona. Riccobono will drive a portion of the same course as the drivers in
"I pretty much shut out the idea that driving was possible, because I didn't
want to focus on that aspect of something I couldn't do," said Riccobono,
34, who has been legally blind since age 5 and was selected from a group of
test drivers to be behind the wheel Saturday. "But I think this project is a
clear example that when you dream big and put your heart and resources into
it, you get to unimagined places."
The NFB, an advocacy group of more than 50,000 members, hatched the idea a
In 2004 it began the Blind Driver Challenge through its Jernigan Institute.
The challenge encouraged partnerships with universities and manufacturers to
create technology that would enable a blind driver to safely operate a
Saturday's event has been in the developmental phase for the past three
years thanks to the NFB's partnership with Virginia Tech's College of
Engineering and TORC Technologies. The students developed the equipment
Riccobono will use. TORC integrated those into a working vehicle.
Several Virginia Tech students teamed with TORC and won $500,000 when they
placed third in a 2007 competition put on by the U.S. Defense Department to
build a fully robotic vehicle. So when Dr. Dennis Hong, director of Tech's
Robotics and Mechanics Laboratory (RoMeLa), heard about NFB's challenge, he
thought it was a no-brainer to get involved.
"We said, 'Hey, we already have a fully-autonomous vehicle, how difficult
would it be to put a person inside?'" Hong said. "We couldn't have been more
wrong. They did not want a vehicle to drive a blind person around. They
wanted a vehicle that a blind person could make active decisions in and
actually drive the vehicle. So we had to start from scratch."
Hong said the biggest challenge was figuring out a way to convey real-time
information to a driver who can't see. They came up with a combination of
mounted laser and camera sensors around the vehicle, which scan the
environment and feed information to sensors worn by the driver.
Working with just $5,000 in initial funding, the first vehicle they built in
2008 converted a dune buggy they bought on eBay for $2,000. That car
featured vibrating chairs and vests and was debuted in the summer of 2009
during a program the NFB held for 175 high school-age blind students. The
BDC is now funded through grants.
The Ford Motor Co.-made Escape Hybrid that will be used Saturday is fitted
with more elaborate lasers and a camera system designed by TORC that will
react with the new DriveGrip and SpeedStrip devices the Virginia Tech
DriveGrip consists of two gloves that send vibrations over the knuckles to
tell the driver how much to turn the wheel. SpeedStrip is a cushion down the
back and legs of the driver which tell them how much to accelerate.
"One of the main things I want to do is build technology that helps
society," said Paul D'Angio, 23, the lead Virginia Tech grad student on the
project. "You can work with the military and make plenty of awesome
technology, but it won't help people until years later ...This is something
Anil Lewis, the NFB's director of strategic communications, trained
alongside Riccobono to drive the Escape. He didn't lose his sight until age
25 when he developed an incurable form of blindness called retinitis
pigmentosa. Having learned to drive as a sighted person, he said relearning
to drive blind wasn't a big difference.
"It's very close to the same kind of learning curve as a sighted person
learning to drive," said Lewis, 46. "You learn different techniques, but as
you drive you get more comfortable. ... After a while it gets kind of
Riccobono, now the director of the Jernigan Institute, was born with
aniridia, a congenital disease in which a person is born without an iris in
one or both eyes.
With only 10 percent of normal vision at age 5, he continued to lose vision
throughout his childhood. He lost all of the vision in his left eye in the
eighth grade. Now 34, he's also lost most of the vision in his right eye,
having only light perception of colors and shapes.
Now, Riccobono will be helping break new technological ground. Though, he
admits, preparing society for a true blind driver will be a bigger hurdle.
"Hardly anybody in the world believes a blind person will ever drive," he
said. "It's going to be a lot of work to convince them that we can actually
pilot a vehicle that is much more complex and has much more risk. Now we
have to convince society that this demonstration is not just a stunt. It's
real. It's dynamic research that's doing great things."
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