Mark Riccobono shared a dream with many other guys in America: he wanted to lap Daytona Speedway, specifically the challenging Daytona road course. Unlike many of us who simply lack the funds to do so, Riccobono had one other challenge to overcome: he’s been blind since the age of five. This weekend, ahead of the Daytona 24 hour race, that didn’t stop him. Driving a laser-rangefinder equipped Ford Escape Hybrid, Riccobono not only lapped the 1.5 mile Daytona road course, but he even successfully avoided obstacles deliberately placed in front of him, or thrown from the van he was pacing. By the end of the lap, Riccobono even passed the pace van.
The system installed in the Escape Hybrid was developed by TORC Technologies and implemented by a team from Virginia Tech. It translates the rangefinder data into haptic feedback for the driver, who wears specially designed gloves and sits on a sensor pad. A moderate vibration sent to the left glove may indicate a gentle left turn, while a harsh vibration may indicate a quicker turn. Information on acceleration or braking is transmitted to a vibrating strip on the seat, which gives a whole new meaning to “seat of the pants” driving.
The system wasn’t designed to allow the blind to obtain drivers licenses, although I’m sure they’d do better than half the drivers already licensed in Florida. Instead, the system was developed to create an interface allowing the blind to better sense the environment around them. Ultimately, this could lead to improved mobility for the blind as well as safer cars for non-visually impaired drivers, who are still affected by reduced visibility at night or in inclement weather. This was a major achievement for all those involved, so congratulations go to Mark Riccobono and the National Federation of the Blind for a job well done.