Voice-operated van helps veteran drive again

ST. PAUL (AP) When Dave Langsdale gets behind the wheel of his van, one of the first things he does is talk to it.
“Drive,” he says, speaking into a small microphone over the sun visor.
The vehicle’s on-board computer checks to see if it heard him correctly. To do that, a pleasant-sounding female voice inquires, “Acknowledge?” and plays a recording of Langsdale’s order.
“Drive,” Langsdale repeats, trying to match the exact sound of his first command.
Satisfied, the computer says “thank you” and shifts the transmission into gear. From then on, Langsdale uses a small, highly sensitive joystick to steer, accelerate and brake. But he gives voice commands for most other motoring tasks — such as operating cruise controls, lights, windshield wipers, turn signals and climate controls.
For those tasks, one command is sufficient. “When you’re moving, things have to operate quicker,” Langsdale explains.
Langsdale, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, is believed to be the first Minnesotan to acquire a vehicle that responds to a sophisticated variety of voice commands. The system was developed several years ago in California, but until now hasn’t been tested in the harsher climate of the Upper Midwest.
When Langsdale wants to board, he presses a button on a wireless transmitter. The van lowers to curb height, the side door unlocks and slides open, and a ramp unfolds and drops to the curb. Langsdale steers his wheelchair into the van and glides into the driver’s position, where the chair is automatically secured. The ramp folds up, the doors close and lock, the seat belts engage, the engine starts.
“We’re very proud of it,” said Steven E. Sawyer, director of the Veterans Medical Center’s Prosthetic Treatment Center. Langsdale’s van represents a collaboration between the medical center and Complete Mobility Systems, a Roseville-based company that has been installing “adaptive controls” in vehicles for 25 years.
Langsdale bought the van, but the medical center paid $70,000 for adaptive equipment that includes various computer-activated devices, plus a system that opens doors and lowers a wheelchair ramp.
The vehicle doesn’t handle like a conventional car. The steering system automatically adjusts the sensitivity of the joystick to compensate for changes in speed. If Langsdale releases the stick, the vehicle automatically shifts into neutral. He says the joystick doesn’t come close to feeling like a wheel.
It’s unlikely that similar vehicles will ever become common or that voice control will be applied to conventional cars, said Scott Mattson, operations manager for Complete Mobility Systems.
A Coast Guard veteran, Langsdale had to abandon driving two years ago when he lost the ability to manipulate the hand controls on his car. He was young enough, 49, to be considered for the special vehicle and qualified for Veterans Administration benefits. Even still, he had to go through a long screening process before he received the vehicle.
The hospital’s Prosthetic Treatment Center is one of the biggest of its kind and also oversees activities at four other veterans centers. The center dealt with 45,000 disabling conditions last year, with treatments ranging from eyeglasses to special beds, wheelchairs, artificial limbs, and other services.