Why This Haptic Steering Wheel Could Save Your Life
The car world’s best hope for fighting in-car distractions can be summed up with one word: Haptics.
Haptics is the study of touch, and haptic feedback is when a device directs a sensation at you. You’ve felt this form of feedback every time your smartphone has vibrated, or your Xbox controller has rumbled along with the explosions on the screen.
Here’s how it involves cars. Since touchscreens don’t have the feel of actual buttons, they require users to pay extra attention to making sure they’ve pressed the right key. This is a particular problem for in-car touchscreens, since every second a driver’s eyes are off the road increases their chance of a collision. With haptic touchscreens, such as a prototype developed by California-based Tactus Technology, the flat screen pops up into actual buttons when they’re needed. Users would technically spend less time with their eyes off the road. In other words, they’d be safer.
This is probably where the emphasis on haptic touchscreens as a safety measure sort of misses the point. The safest in-car systems will keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. With haptic touchscreens, you still need to move your hands, and you still need to at least glance their way.
This is why the prototype steering wheel that was jointly developed by researchers at AT&T Research Labs and Carnegie Mellon University is so interesting. The steering wheel is embedded with a series of tiny motors, similar to the ones that cause you cellphone to vibrate. As drivers get closer and closer to a turn, the motors cause the steering wheel to vibrate with increasing frequency in a clockwise or counterclockwise pattern, depending on if it’s a left or right turn.
According to Kevin Li, the AT&T researcher who developed the wheel, these vibration patterns trigger a “human perception trick” that causes the brain to sense a number of discrete vibrations as a continuous line of motion. So you don’t just feel a vibrating steering wheel, but actually sense a clockwise or counterclockwise motion, which causes you to instinctively turn the steering wheel along with it.
Li says his research has shown this has a noticeable impact on how much certain drivers keep their eyes on the road. “Interestingly, this seemed to overload the senses of older drivers,” Li says. “But for younger drivers, eyes off the road as a proportion of driving time decreased by about 10%.”
But sensing upcoming turns isn’t all haptics can do. The same sensory trick that causes discrete vibrations to feel like a continuous line can also be used to convey other, more complex types of information to drivers as well. For example, Li says that he is playing around with a haptic seat that lets drivers “feel” a car pass through a blind spot. This sensory trick would allow the vibrations to tell drivers where a car is, and how it is moving in relation to them.
The way I see it, this is basically a sort of “spidey sense,” where you instinctively feel the presence of on-the-road danger. And you do it without moving your eyes, or your hands.