Getting in touch with your car.

This morning, I was greeted by a Nicolas Coia who was eager to share the front page of core77 with me. It showed this article about a concept in development that is a steering wheel which gives a driver haptic feedback. The reason why Nic was grinning while he showed this to me is because I presented a very similar concept just two days ago as my final project for my cognitive studies class with Slavko Milekic.

Visual cues depend on the drivers ocular capabilities which can lead to creating biased against drivers who are visually impaired or need to wear glasses. I think leveraging a second sense is a valuable tool when delivering important information to the driver of a vehicle. It’s especially useful for that feedback to utilize the sense of touch with the steering wheel. All vehicles have steering wheels and people hold the steering wheel to control the vehicle. Things like speedometers and navigation screens require the driver to change the direction they are looking and require them to change their depth of field. Not to mention there is also a lot of variation in speedometer layouts and navigation screens. This increases the drivers cognitive load and distracts from the actual task of operating a vehicle. While there are other attempts to improve the delivery of important information, I think exploring the sense of touch for the delivery of information is a fantastic idea.

The concept showcased on core77 is a joint project between AT&T and Carnegie Mellon. The steering wheel in this case has a series of internal vibrating mechanisms that can deliver different types of vibrations to the driver through the steering wheel. In this application, the technology is used to help deliver navigation instructions. As the driver approaches a turn, the steering sends pulsing signals, either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending on the direction they need to turn.

My concept is slightly different. In my scenario, the steering wheel has rings built into the wheel. These rings can grow to extrude themselves from the steering wheel or shrink to disappear and sit flush. This type of growth in the steering wheel is intended to change as the speed of the vehicle increases. As the vehicle travels faster, more rings grow around the steering wheel and when the vehicle slows down, the rings disappear.

Using your sense of touch to read the speed of the vehicle changes the nature of the task. It creates an experience for the driver where the vehicle is interacting with them as the state of the vehicle changes. The driver is no longer reading how fast the vehicle is going, but rather “feeling” how fast it is going. This allows the driver to keep their eyes on the road, and it reduces the drivers visual, cognitive load.

While I think Carnegie Mellon & AT&T are on to something, their concept could use improving. I am curious what the consequences are of sending vibrations through a steering wheel. I feel like this can startle a driver who is not familiar with the sensation of a vibrating steering wheel. At the same time, I don’t think the context they are trying to employ this technology in is the most valuable. If you consider the type of information that is important to a driver, I think you would find there are other pieces of information a driver needs to know before how they get somewhere. People have been driving vehicles for decades without a device dictating directions to them. Perhaps we can use a steering wheel to deliver more pertinent information like the speed of the vehicle, range of fuel, and temperature of the engine (warming the wheel to inform the driver of an engine that is running too warm could be confused with a ‘heated steering wheel’ feature so that could get a little tricky). I am excited to see how this technology gets implemented and how soon we see interactive steering wheels enter the mainstream market.

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