Unknown to thousands of race fans pouring into the Speedway on Saturday morning, Riccobono became a hero to 400 members of the National Federation of the Blind. They were there from all over the country for one reason only — to witness Riccobono become the first blind driver to take the wheel in a solo trip on the track.
Several federation members compared his demonstration to the first United States space flight in 1961.
“He’s our Alan Shepard,” said GaryWunder, editor of the Braille Monitor, the federation magazine. “We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”
For the blind, driving a car represents freedom and independence, things other drivers often take for granted.
The federation challenged the nation’s universities to take the challenge of developing non-visual technology that would allow a blind person to drive independently. One team accepted, a group of students at Virginia Tech, working under the direction of Dennis Hong, director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory. The equipment was placed in a Ford Escape Hybrid.
Riccobono directs technology, research and education for the Federation’s Jernigan Institute in Baltimore.
To get behind the wheel, he put on gloves that send vibrating signals along his fingers to tell him when to turn and sat on a cushion that vibrated along his legs to tell him when to brake or accelerate. He drove the inside horseshoe on the track and in a tactical demonstration, dodged several boxes thrown in front of his vehicle and passed a van.
The long-term implications of the technology were simply mind-boggling for many cheering in the bleachers.
“This means a lot more to us than just the driving,” Wunder said. “If we can get all the information that’s necessary to drive, what other things will we be able to do?”
“It’s incredible,” said Randy Phifer, of Overland Park, Kansas, a federation member listening to the play-by-play over the infield speakers. “I told my fellow parishioners at home that I’d be back to pick them up,” Phifer joked.
For college student Mika Baugh of Indiana, it was “pretty neat.”
Owning and driving her own car would mean she “wouldn’t have to wait for the bus in the freezing cold.
“You can’t even imagine what blind and sighted people will be able to do with this technology someday,” she said.
Sabrina Deaton, president of the Daytona Beach chapter of the federation, lost her ability to drive almost 11 years ago, a victim of macular degeneration.
Driving was “one of the most difficult things to give up,” she said. “It was giving up my independence.”
The ability to drive opens up opportunities for education and employment, she said. “And, just to be able to hop into the car and take a Sunday drive.”
If the research pace continues, Riccobono said the technology could be available for general use in just five years. Federation officials said they couldn’t estimate how much the technology would cost.
Riccobono said other challenges remain, especially convincing sighted drivers that it would be safe to share the road with blind drivers.