Will Vibrating Steering Wheels Make For Safer Roads?

Steering Wheel - 2011 Volvo XC90 FWD 4-door I6

Steering Wheel - 2011 Volvo XC90 FWD 4-door I6

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Of the five senses that the human body is equipped with, sight and sound are the primary ones used behind the wheel of a car. You could argue that touch comes into play as well, since most vehicles now come equipped with steering-wheel-mounted audio, telephone and cruise control buttons, too.

That said, touch isn’t a primary sense required for driving, but scientists at AT&T Labs, working with Carnegie Mellon University, may look to change that. According to Technology Review, researchers are incorporating haptics, or touch-based feedback, into navigation systems with positive results.

The system is simple, in concept at least. If a left turn is approaching, drivers will feel a counter-clockwise vibration through the steering wheel. A right turn would be indicated by a clockwise pulse through the steering wheel, and different signals could even be used to warn of cars in a blind spot or slowing traffic ahead.

Ultimately, the goal is to create drivers that are less distracted behind the wheel. Even voice commands (from a navigation system, for example) can be distracting, but touch-based information appears to be less so.

In fact, one study showed that drivers given haptic navigation instructions with accompanying voice commands made fewer wrong turns that drivers guided by voice alone.

If there’s a downside, it’s this: the current research shows an improvement of 3.1-percent in attentiveness, but only for younger drivers with an average age of 25. The study showed no benefit for older drivers, which goes counter to the navigational study cited above.

More research is necessary, and it’s unlikely that haptic interfaces will find their way into cars of the near future. Longer term, such feedback may prove worthwhile to implement, as long as researchers can develop a standardized system that users understand without formal training.
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