Distracted driving is a menace on our roads; just ask anybody selling auto insurance. The problem is, simply, there’s only so much you can do to limit the visual stimuli in a car cockpit. And it’s especially true if you’re not sure where you’re going and are using a GPS.
Fortunately, AT&T and Carnegie Mellon Labs have developed a solution: haptic feedback. That is, making your steering wheel shake. If that sounds familiar, it should: your cell phone uses haptic feedback to let you know when you’ve pressed a key on the screen. But this goes a lot further than text messaging.
How It Works
The prototype works like this: the steering wheel is fitted with 20 small motors that can vibrate in a pattern: clockwise for right turns, counter-clockwise for left turns. They can even pick up in intensity as you approach the intersection you need to make your turn.
OK, so it’s neat, and a clever use of technology. But it’s just a gimmick, right? Wrong. In tests, drivers were found to be more alert and have their eyes on the road more often when being alerted via vibrations than they were using a GPS. It really comes down to the fact that you’re using a different sense to feel the directions.
For a GPS to work, it has to at least give you visual directions, and probably also announce your turns. The problem is that both are distracting. Drivers need to use their eyes, obviously, but they also need to listen for subtle signals of a problem: blaring horns, screeching tires, profanity, things of that nature. It also takes time and attention for the brain to process verbal commands: there are only so many things even the most focused of us can do at once, after all.
Touch, on the other hand, is a sense you’re not using while driving, and it’s one that’s fairly simple to cater to; after all, your hands are on the wheel like they’re supposed to be, so it makes it easier for you to keep your eyes on the road. Helping matters is the fact that the brain can process haptic feedback much faster than it can other commands: it’s much easier to sort out vibration being more intense on one side of your body than it is to listen to verbal commands.
Touch and haptic feedback are becoming a new trend in the auto industry. Cadillac’s new safety package is packed with ultrasonic sensors and radar…and lets you know about a possible collision or just your drifting into the wrong lane by vibrating your seat cushion. It’s proven to work, although it’s currently only an optional safety package.
In other words, you can expect your car to be shaking a whole lot more as it tells you where to go or lets you know that something is going wrong. But our guess is that it’s only a matter of time before somebody redesigns the things into a massager. After all, if you’ve had a hard day, the vibrations of your car seat can be soothing. Just not too soothing! Falling asleep behind the wheel is bad as well.