September 26, 2005 Vibrating the hands, bottoms and feet of car drivers could cut accidents by 15 per cent, according to research at the UK's Oxford University, bringing a whole new meaning to "driving by seat of your pants". Dr Charles Spence, who lead the research team, has predicted that vibrating warning devices, pioneered by Citroen in the C4 and C5 models, could be common within a few years, along with 'earcons', directed audible warnings that will call a driver's attention to the direction of an approaching hazard. Soothing smells - another technology pioneered by the French car maker - will also be used to reduce road rage.
Up a half of car accidents are caused by a lack of attention, be it to speed, road conditions or other hazards and the research carried out by Dr Spence revealed that drivers can quickly suffer from an information overload as they try to react to warning signals while trying to establish a way to avoid an accident.
The research programme has shown that alternate methods of providing warning signals are required and that these need to be graduated and directional, so that the level of warning is commensurate with the hazard.
The warning signal - whatever it is - will also indicate the direction from which the hazard is approaching, the source of the problem or a means of overcoming it.
The study has looked at providing drivers with warning signals by placing vibrating panels in the seats, seatbelts, the pedals and the steering wheel, along devices that produce audible warnings in different places around the car.
This would mean that if a hazard was approaching, for example, towards the rear of the car, that is where the warning sound would come from. Or if a problem could be solved by slowing down, the accelerator pedal would vibrate. Both of these types of devices encourage the driver to look towards the source of the hazard, or the solution to a problem and to react more quickly to it.
The study has shown that the vibrating surfaces are the most promising, though, as in a scenario where a driver has to take information and process it from several directions and sources, the brain reacts quicker to the tactile inputs.
Early research has shown simple systems improve driver reaction times by a minimum of 200 milliseconds, a significant improvement as studies have also shown that a 500 millisecond improvement in reaction time would mean a 60 per cent cut in rear end accidents, for example.
The Citroen C4 is the first car to offer vibrating panels to warn the driver of a hazard. The optional system detects when the car is wandering across lanes and vibrates the side of the driver's that matches thedirection of drift. This alerts the driver to the lack of control, but without the sudden burst of noise of a conventional warning that could cause the driver to overreact and steer suddenly in the other direction.
Citroen has also clearly separated the warning lights from the regular lights on the dashboard. Normally all warning lights are in the same place in the instrument panel. In the Citroen C4 the lights for routine functions, such as indicators, full beam and so on are in one place on the dashboard and the warning lights for hazards are in a separate place. This means that the driver knows that if any light comes on in the second area, it must be a hazard that requires an immediate response.
In designing its perfume dispenser Citroen did more than just choose smells that are nice or pleasant. Consulting psychologists, Citroen picked smells that are known to keep people calm, but alert and not districting.