We know our ability to drive an automobile remains in the distant future. Aside from restoration of eye sight, a highly technologically complex vehicle featuring artificial intelligence and thousands of sensors will be required. In the meantime, why not try adapting bicycles for faster independent travel? As a child with extremely low vision, I rode one for several years until I drove it off a six foot cliff!

There are many aspects to riding a bicycle that lend themselves to adaptation for independent use by the blind. Since the bicycle travels much more slowly than the automobile, the consequences of an accident can be greatly reduced. A bicycle can be legally and safely ridden on the side walks of many communities. Traveling by bicycle is thus more like walking than driving. Since the bicycle is open, the blind user could use their hearing, orientation and mobility skills and other alternative blindness techniques to cross streets. Riding a bicycle would be faster than walking, and many bikes can enable the rider to carry packages that are heavier and larger than those an average walker could handle.

There are certainly a number of challenges that must be considered and resolved before it would ever be safe for a totally blind or severely visually impaired person to attempt riding a bicycle. These challenges include collision avoidance, navigation and obstacle detection. I strongly believe that these challenges can be overcome using current technology. No complex artificial intelligence or other highly advanced computer technologies should be required.

Collision avoidance and obstacle detection are absolutely critical in order for us to be able to ride a bicycle in a manner that is safe not only for ourselves but also for the general public. We must avoid colliding with cars and pedestrians. We must also avoid hazards such as falling off cliffs and running in to objects like poles and trees. The concept of obstacle avoidance using ultrasonic sensors has been studied for more than thirty years. Unfortunately, this research has been conducted from the perspective of the traditional blind walker. The guide dog and the long white cane, tried and true alternative blindness techniques for safe and effective walking, rightly resulted in the failure of such products as the Sonic Guide. In 1999 and 2000, I worked with a student at Arizona State University on a research project using auditory signals and ultrasonic detectors to aide blind walkers in avoiding potentially dangerous obstacles. I ultimately lost interest in the project. I couldn’t see an application where the device would sufficiently benefit the average blind person to justify the allocation of limited resources in another probably unsuccessful assistive technology product. I am now beginning to understand that this technology may be applicable to the blind after all. A bicycle might be fitted with tens or hundreds of ultrasonic detectors. These detectors could then be connected to a device that would process the information and convey it to the blind rider in the form of auditory signals, vibrations or a combination of both modalities. Such a system would need to enable the blind rider’s ability to safely perform at least the following tasks:

  • Detect the oncoming presence of automobiles, pedestrians and other bicyclists, allowing the blind rider sufficient time to avoid a collision.
  • Avoid falling off cliffs, ledges and other sudden downward terrain changes while providing sufficient time to take evasive action.
  • Avoid running in to poles, low hanging branches and other similar hazards, allowing sufficient time to stop or take other appropriate action.

Navigation is the third critical element to the ability of a blind person to ride a bicycle. After all, the purpose of riding is to transport yourself to an ultimate destination. The navigation issue can be tackled from two conceptual levels: micro and macro. The micro aspects of navigation involve such basic but absolutely essential tasks as determining the boundary between the street and the sidewalk, detecting driveways and enabling the rider to travel in a straight line. Again, the ultrasonic detectors used for collision avoidance and obstacle detection might be useful in these tasks. On the macro level, you want to be able to travel longer distances than those you can achieve through walking. A talking GPS navigation device would certainly come in very handy. Those are already on the market in the form of such products as BrailleNote GPS, Trekker and the soon to be released StreetTalk solution for the PAC Mate.

This summary is understandably very preliminary. More than anything else, the intent is to spark discussion on the possibility of bicycle riding for the blind. If this is a reasonable goal, we should be seeing research, prototyping and live demonstrations of this capability in the near future. Again, your participation is highly encouraged. Please comment on the possibility of blind bicycling from either a practical or technical perspective.