It was for the first time ever on Saturday, January 29, 2011, that a blind man took the wheel of a specially designed Ford Escape and drove solo around the Daytona International Speedway.
Mark Anthony Riccobono, a blind executive who directs technology, research, and education programs at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) , was behind the wheel of a Ford Escape hybrid equipped with non-visual technology and successfully navigated 1.5 miles of the road course section of the famed track at the Daytona International Speedway. On Saturday, just before noon, Us Congressman John Mica (R-Florida), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, drove the BDC Ford Escape onto the racetrack and handed Riccobono the keys. Wearing sleep shades to prove to everyone that he was actually driving without sight, Riccobono took the car for a spin around the track
The historic demonstration was part of pre-race activities leading up to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. 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 sensors 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 stop.
350 NFB members came to Daytona to witness history while many others listened live to a special audio stream of the event. They all hope the demonstration will excite the scientific and engineering communities about the possibilities for non-visual access, not only for blind people but for all Americans.
Mr. Riccobono said: "The NFB's leadership in the Blind Driver Challenge™ 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 non-visual means. Today we have demonstrated that truth to the nation and the world."
The Blind Driver Challenge ™ (BDC) is a joint project between the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Jernigan Institute and Virginia Tech's Robotics and Mechanisms Lab (RoMeLa). The Jernigan Institute is the only research and training facility on blindness operated by blind people. Dr. Dennis Hong, RoMeLa's director, stepped forward after NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer challenged America's universities in 2004 to develop a car blind people could drive. The team uses the ByWire XGV™ developed by TORC technologies as the research platform for the development and testing of the non-visual interface technologies that allow a blind person to drive.
The purpose of the NFB Blind Driver Challenge™ is to stimulate the development of non-visual interface technology. With more than 50,000 members, the National Federation of the Blind is the largest and most influential membership organization of blind people in the United States. The NFB improves blind people's lives through advocacy, education, research, technology, and programs encouraging independence and self-confidence. It is the leading force in the blindness field today and the voice of the nations’ blind. In January 2004 the NFB opened the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, the first research and training center in the United States for the blind led by the blind.
Mark Anthony Riccobono, part of the Blind Driver Challenge ™ driving team, was chosen Friday after test-drives at the legendary home of NASCAR's Daytona 500.
Wisconsin native Riccobono, who has been blind since age five, is the Jernigan Institute's Executive Director. He graduated with honors from Solomon Juneau Business High School in Milwaukee, and is a 1999 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he was selected as a member of the prestigious Iron Cross Society.
While in college, Riccobono founded the National Association of Blind Students of Wisconsin and later served as president of the NFB of Wisconsin. He was the first director of the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a state agency serving Wisconsin's blind children. Riccobono came to the NFB's Baltimore headquarters in 2003. In 2009, he earned a Masters of Science in Educational Studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Professional Studies in Business and Education.
"I never got to try for a driver's license or drive a car without another person telling me which way to steer," said Riccobono prior to Saturday's demonstration, "This is a truly historic occasion for my blind brothers and sisters and for America, and I am humbled and proud to be part of it."
A tireless advocate for blind children and adults, Riccobono has spearheaded many initiatives and educational programs designed to engage blind youth in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The first generation BDC prototype was a dune buggy equipped with a vest with non-visual technology. Riccobono and 20 blind teens drove it solo around the parking lot of the University of Maryland at the 2009 Youth Slam, NFB's science camp.
Riccobono's wife Melissa, a school counselor, serves as president of NFB's Maryland affiliate. The couple lives in Baltimore with their two young children, Austin and Oriana. Riccobono said the BDC demonstration shows the world that being blind does not prevent a person from engaging in any activity they choose as long as they are able to get the information they need.
"The NFB's leadership in the Blind Driver Challenge has taken something almost everyone believed was an impossible dream and turned it into reality," he states.
The purpose of the BDC is to stimulate the development of non-visual interface technology. Technological advances in the world of consumer products have all too often not been accompanied by advances in non-visual interfaces. Blind Americans are increasingly unable to use products that were once easy to operate, since touch screens have replaced knobs and switches. Inaccessible software and office equipment is preventing blind Americans from advancing in the workplace.
"The sight of a blind individual driving a vehicle without assistance from a sighted person will shake the foundation of public misconceptions about blindness and blind people," said Dr. Maurer In a statement Friday, "by showing that even tasks that are thought to require vision are possible if a blind person has access to information in a non visual way."