Ford of Europe let 30 blind and visually impaired drivers get behind the wheel at their test track in Cologne, Germany in an attempt to give blind people a better understanding of automobiles and examine how they interact with cars.
Last week’s test drives put drivers in control of all vehicle inputs, responding to the directions of a sighted driving instructor. The fastest driver got their Fiesta up to 74 mph, and Ford reported that all drivers quickly mastered the fine art of a stick shift through feel and sound.
“Driving it was not a big problem for me,” said driver Katrin Berus of Kleve, Germany. “Operating clutch and gearshift was easier than I expected.”
Teaching the blind to drive has been an increasingly realistic goal of late, as cameras and sensors are finally sophisticated and inexpensive enough that there’s a chance they may someday substitute for sight. At the Blind Driver Challenge earlier this year, a blind driver even took on a lap of the Daytona International Speedway solo, guiding the car with his own judgment using only prompts that in-vehicle technology had converted from visual data to tactile feedback.
Though the test drivers in Cologne relied on directions from professional instructors rather than sophisticated sensors, Ford still saw the event as empowering to blind and visually impaired drivers. In addition to letting them get behind the wheel, engineers also showed them how cars crumple during a crash and let them explore vehicles through touch and feel to better understand cars’ shape and size.
“In traffic situations, people with visual impairments orient themselves using sounds, so it’s easy for them to misjudge size and speed of cars,” said Dr. Wolfgang Schneider, Ford of Europe’s VP of legal, governmental and environmental affairs. “We want to help resolve such problems by encouraging greater participation in traffic that can leave us all more enlightened and confident.”
Schneider estimated that blind people could be driving themselves within 15 to 20 years. For that reason, the event also served as a focus group and sales pitch in addition to giving blind people confidence in cars. For instance, blind drivers reported they preferred the feel of a round car versus an angular one, Ford’s engineers got to see how blind people interacted with in-vehicle controls, and the drivers better understood how to interact with cars — for now as pedestrians and passengers.
One thing’s for sure: If Ford’s planning to market a car to blind drivers, they better offer a third pedal.
High-Tech Car Allows The Blind To Drive