New Steering Technology

New technology provides tactile guidance through the steering wheel to overcome driver distraction

It might not work with your EH’s Bakelite steering wheel but researchers at AT&T Labs in the United States are working on a vibrating steering wheel designed to reduce driving distraction.

What is needed is some haptic response technology, and so engineers in the lab have come up with a prototype steering wheel. In the prototype, a clockwise pattern of vibrations on the steering wheel means “turn right”; counter clockwise means “turn left.” The wheel’s 20 actuators can fire off in any pattern. And while the initial focus has been on improving delivery of GPS navigation instructions, other applications are under development, such as notifying drivers if cars are in their blind spots.

A study jointly run by AT&T Labs with the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania found that younger drivers in particular showed some benefit from using the steering wheel.  The study found that it provided clear benefits: participants’ eyes stayed on the road longer. When younger drivers—with an average age of 25—used the haptic steering wheel along with the usual visual and auditory methods of receiving navigation instructions, their inattentiveness dropped 3.1 per cent.  

That study did not find any benefit for older drivers, but a different one did. When haptic systems were added to auditory-only instructions, the inattentiveness of older drivers dropped 4 per cent.

Kevin Li, a researcher with the user interface group at AT & T warns that while the lab is working with car manufacturers on the technology, it will be years before the ideas make their way into real cars.  Solutions need to be usable, intuitive, and accommodating of different hand placements. “An underlying thread of this research is, can we develop great haptic and tactile cues that users ‘get’ right out of the box?” said Li.

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