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Vibrating steering wheel gives directions and keeps drivers' eyes on the road

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April 30, 2012

Some of the vibrating actuators within the experimental steering wheel

Some of the vibrating actuators within the experimental steering wheel

Many drivers would be lost – quite literally – without their in-car navigation systems. When installed in vehicles that some people would say are already overcrowded with instrumentation, however, could such systems be just one visual distraction too many? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and AT&T Labs are addressing that concern, by experimenting with a system that conveys navigational cues through vibrations in the steering wheel.

The experimental haptic-feedback-providing steering wheel designed for the project is by no means the first one ever made. Scientists at the University of Utah, for instance, have been testing a wheel that tugs on the skin of the driver’s fingers, indicating which way they should turn. Additionally, various automakers are now offering cars with steering wheels that vibrate to warn drivers of approaching road hazards, or to let them know that they’re drifting out of their lane.

The AT&T-designed wheel is unique, however, in that it incorporates an array of 20 vibrating actuators within its rim, which can be made to fire in any order – the need for a right-hand turn is indicated by the actuators firing in a clockwise direction, while a counterclockwise series of vibrations indicates that a left is in order.

The wheel was tested at Carnegie Mellon using a computer-based driving simulator, with and without accompanying traditional visual and auditory navigational cues. The test subjects included a group of 16 young drivers, aged 16 to 36, along with 17 older drivers, who were over the age of 65. All 33 drivers drove a virtual course that included obstacles such as stop signs, pedestrians and traffic lights. As they did so, indicators of their attention level and cognitive workload – such as brain wave activity, heart rate, blink rate, and pupil size – were measured by the researchers.

It was found that by combining haptic and auditory cues, but eliminating the visual cues (meaning the navigational device’s screen), all participants glanced away from the road less than they did when using a conventional system. Specifically, nine percent less often for the younger drivers, and four percent less for the older group.

When a combination of all three types of cues was tried, however, the younger drivers once again glanced away less, but that was not the case with the older drivers. Additionally, while the audio/visual/haptic combo reduced the cognitive workload of the younger subjects, it did not do so for the older participants. This could be because the younger group expressed a preference for visual cues, while the older group preferred auditory cues – for them, the extra visual cues were just a distraction that their eyes were drawn to.

According to the researchers, these findings indicate that when designing navigation systems for use by older drivers, care needs to be taken to allow them to focus on the task at hand, and not saturate them with feedback.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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5 Comments

This fall under the category 'Time to take away their license.'

Ct
30th April, 2012 @ 12:44 pm PDT

spot on ctcsme, I am so sick of the driver assist systems on new cars, waiting for the driver to jump outta the car and say the collision system did not work, sorry about your Son being dead not my fault, I was texting, the collision system malfunctioned, bye

Bill Bennett
30th April, 2012 @ 09:51 pm PDT

Just finished e-mailing my aging mum.

I suggested she have a passive GPS locator

chip implanted in the back of her neck that

can also measure vital signs.

Bio feedback in the steering wheel should

be able to measure blood pressure, pulse

rate, moisture content in the skin and

electrical energy fluctuation.

Electric shock should also be included in

feedback loop, linked to external car cameras,

so as to punish drivers who break the law or

for those citizens that are a cardio risk......

'heart regulation'.

The Stav
30th April, 2012 @ 10:42 pm PDT

I'm tired of all these gadgets to provide warnings, like the one above and the ones below. Just take the next step and eliminate the middleman. Instead of systems to warn drivers, we need systems to drive for us. Let's face it, human beings are too easily distracted and usually have too many problems to be entrusted with speeding, multiton vehicles. Let the computers do the driving and we could eliminate road rage, missed turns, traffic jams, DWI, etc. Accident rates could be reduced by orders of magnitude. To all the drivers who think you need your feeling of control behind the steering wheel (it's an illusion), it's not as bad as you think. Many of us take buses, taxicabs, subways and trains every day and don't feel like we're powerless, although it would obviously be better if individual vehicles could give us door-to-door service instead of the set routes of mass transit.

Gadgeteer
1st May, 2012 @ 01:14 am PDT

Surely a better method would be to asymmetrically 'vibrate' the steering wheel from side to side with the speed of the stroke in the direction the car should turn much quicker than the return stroke. Symmetrical vibrations could indicate that some other problem needs attending to.

I know the 'brmm brmm' brigade, led by their commander in chief, Jeremy Clarkson, will not like such measures, but guess what guys, it's time to grow up. Unless the climate is discarded as an item of concern, cars will eventually all become electric or hybrid with electric transmission and therefore will be much more computer controllable. What a joy: no more speed cameras or junction cameras, possibly no need for such harsh alcohol limits because cars will be much easier to drive and thus safer. Insurance premiums that do not need a lottery win in order to afford them. No dangerous overtaking because the car will not let you, no matter how much you think you deserve a place in an F1 team. No road-rage because road vehicles will negotiate who goes first into any gap or lane merge situation between themselves without the driver being involved. And finally, they will unstealable. In short driving might possibly become fun again.

Mel Tisdale
1st May, 2012 @ 11:54 am PDT
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