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5.7.10

A car which can be driven by the people without eyesight could be available by next year.

Experts at the National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech are working on a prototype equipped with technology that will help a sightless person sit behind the wheel in 2011.

The technology, called non-visual interfaces, will guide its driver through traffic by transmitting information about nearby vehicles or objects, the paper said.

Vibrating gloves or streams of compressed air directed towards the driver are among the options for communicating the information needed to avoid collisions and reach a destination.

Advocates for the blind describe the project as a "moon shot", drawing parallels with President John F Kennedy's pledge to land a man on the moon.

"We're exploring areas that have previously been regarded as unexplorable," said Mark Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind. "We're moving away from the theory that blindness ends the capacity of human beings to make contributions to society".

Maurer first came up with the idea about a decade ago when he launched the organisation's research institute.

"Some people thought I was crazy, and they thought, 'Why do you want us to raise money for something that can't be done?' Others thought it was a great idea," he said. "Some people were incredulous. Others thought the idea was incredible".

Virginia Tech created a dune buggy as part of a feasibility study that used sensor lasers and cameras to act as the eyes of the vehicle. A vibrating vest was used to direct the driver to speed up, slow down or make turns.

The results will be demonstrated in January on a modified Ford Escape sport utility vehicle at the Daytona International Speedway.

The vehicle will use non-visual interfaces to help a blind driver operate the car.

One interface, DriveGrip, uses gloves with vibrating motors on areas that cover the knuckles. The vibrations guide the driver when and where to turn.

Another interface, AirPix, is a tablet about half the size of a sheet of paper with multiple air holes, almost like those found on an air hockey game.

Compressed air coming out of the device helps inform the person of his or her surroundings, essentially creating a map of the objects around a vehicle. It would show whether there was another vehicle in a nearby lane or an obstruction in the road.

Dennis Hong, a mechanical engineering professor at Virginia Tech who leads the research, said the technology could one day help a blind driver operate a vehicle but also could be used on conventional vehicles to make them safer or on other applications.

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