Last month, I was hit by a car while crossing the street. Granted, I was technically jaywalking and should have waited my turn. I mistakenly thought the driver saw me. Plus it’s New York City after all, where jaywalking is about as routine as paying $2,000 per month for a 450-square-foot studio apartment. Afterward, I discovered that seconds before the accident, the driver’s attention had been diverted to his GPS.
Even though GPS devices have come a long way technologically, we still need to listen and look at them to get where we’re going. Much ink has been spilled over the obvious dangers of texting while driving, but what about the distractions presented by devices intentionally made for driving? A GPS may guide you to your destination, but your brain has to process the information from it while you’re trying to get safely down the street. Inevitably, it leads to sensory overload: You’re looking at the road, then back at the GPS, while at the same time listening to directions and maybe the radio as well. All while operating a vehicle that probably weighs 3,000 lbs. or more.
Kevin Li thinks he has a solution. A researcher at AT&T Labs, he has devised a haptics-enhanced steering wheel that uses small motors to make the wheel vibrate, alerting drivers to upcoming turns.
On smartphones with haptic feedback, you feel minute vibrations when you touch the screen. Similarly, Li’s prototype steering wheel contains 20 small vibration motors along the perimeter of the wheel, which vibrate one at a time in sequence to suggest when you ought to turn clockwise or counterclockwise. When a turn is coming, you will feel a sweeping motion in the right direction.
By re-directing information from drivers’ sense of sight and sound to their sense of touch, Li says he hoped to cut down on the cognitive overload that ultimately leads to accidents. Partnering with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Li found the wheel to be surprisingly intuitive among testers.
“For many people, when they first experience it, they don’t need any instruction on ‘This is a left, this is a right.’ They sort of just understand,” he said.
While the steering wheel is only a conceptual product at the moment, Li continues to refine and develop other ways to communicate with drivers contextually, by placing vibration motors in car seats, for instance. ”The key behind the work is helping drivers drive safer without having to force them to think more about driving,” he said.