Road Safety News

Can ‘haptics’ help counter driver distraction?

Tuesday 7th August 2012

A prototype steering wheel, jointly developed by researchers at communications company AT&T and Carnegie Mellon University, America, can inform a driver’s steering through ‘haptic feedback’ (Mashable Tech).

Haptics is the study of touch, and haptic feedback is when a device directs a sensation at a person - an example is a vibrating smartphone.

According to the Mashable Tech report, the steering wheel is embedded with a series of tiny motors, and as a driver gets closer to a turn, the motors cause the steering wheel to vibrate with increasing frequency in either a clockwise or counter clockwise pattern, depending on the turn.

Kevin Li, the AT&T researcher who developed the wheel, says that these vibration patterns trigger a ‘human perception trick’ which causes the brain to sense a number of discrete vibrations as a continuous line of motion. Therefore, the driver doesn’t just feel a vibrating steering wheel, but actually senses a clockwise or counter clockwise motion, which causes them to instinctively turn the wheel in that direction.

As such, the steering wheel has the potential to attract the attenion of a driver who has their eyes off the road or lost concentration.

Li says: “Interestingly, this (the steering wheel) seemed to overload the senses of older drivers, but for younger drivers, eyes off the road as a proportion of driving time decreased by about 10%.”

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. For example, the researchers are working on 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.

Click here to read the full Mashable Tech story.


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Mark's comments are interesting. Actually the real worry is that there are people seriously experimenting with a flying car concept to help avoid traffic jams. Can you really believe this? Given that most drivers are like the next crash waiting to happen I fear to think what they might be like in the air. Fancy policing that lot and dealing with aerial RTC's. The mind boggles - horrendously.
Nigel Albright

Agree (4) | Disagree (1)

I note the comments about feedback and whilst this is true, in the modern car you feel the steering through the power steering system and your brakes through the servo, even without ABS. So increasingly you are left with little actual feedback, thus systems like this have the potential* to replace the feedback that has been lost.

*note the use of the 'drop' or 'weasel' word here as I acknowledge this may be a dead end but the military are using this to enable helicopters to be landed in the dark.
Mark, Caerphilly

Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

In brief reply to Honor's comments, I feel she is on the wrong platform. Disc brakes improve the efficiency of braking. That, for example, is not the same as items which cover poor or bad driving behaviour. In general terms if you need ABS and the like then you got your observation and planning badly wrong. Take it away and people have to think more about what they do, which should in principle make them inherently safer. You have to find ways of people taking responsibility for their own safety. So called safety aspects of vehicle design only make people feel more secure and that actually heightens their risk profile, not lowers it.
Nigel Albright

Agree (2) | Disagree (5)

Oh dear, the Luddites are out - shall we stick with drum brakes all round, despite disc brakes being infinitely better? Come to think of it that chap with the red flag was useful, why did we ever get rid of him?

ABS and ESP have proved a tremendous safety benefit for every day drivers. Let's not react so negatively to new technology that is designed to help the driver - this is an interesting idea that deserves further investigation.
Honor Byford, North Yorkshire

Agree (6) | Disagree (3)

Idris's comment reminds me of a conversation with a police driving instructor when ABS first came on the scence. He said, 'If you need it you are doing it wrong'. It's just as true today as it was then. Unfortunately most of these gizmo's on vehicles do more to reduce concentration than they do to improve it. Damage limitation devices, (such as airbags) wrongly called 'safety features', in my view, have much the same effect. Nottingham University apparently did research some years ago which showed that the more 'safety features' you add to the vehicle the higher the risk profile of the driver, in general terms.
Nigel Albright

Agree (4) | Disagree (4)

A year-long American study of 100 cars and drivers, using CCTV and recorders, showing road ahead and behind and the driver, showed that about 75% of all accidents happened in the immediate aftermath of loss of concentration by the driver. Clearly anything that can reduce that problem would be valuable, but I rather doubt that these ideas would.

Sir Stirling Moss, no less, told me in a chance conversation - I think in relation to ABS - that the last thing he needed was systems that interfere with his ability to judge what the car is doing.

At my admittedly far lower skill level, I always object if a rear seat passenger pushes against my driving seat, interfering with the feedback I get from it about what the car is doing.

One of the most important skills in driving, especially in difficult conditions or in an emergency, is surely sensing what the tyres, particularly the front tyres are doing through the "feel" provided by the wheel. Whatever benefits this new idea might provide, my guess is that by interfering with that feedback it would cause more problems than it solves.
Idris Francis

Agree (11) | Disagree (3)