Touch sensitive steering wheel prompts drivers by pulling at skin

If you’re prone to illegally talking on your mobile phone and fail to hear spoken instructions to turn left and rights from your sat nav, then a new study by the University of Utah could help.

The boffins have published research that found directions could be given by a range of devices that are mounted on the steering wheel – and pull skin on the driver’s index fingertips left or right.

However, they have said they don’t want their results to encourage illegal and dangerous driving by mobile phone users.

 “We are not saying people should drive and talk on a cell phone and that tactile [touch] navigation cues will keep you out of trouble,” the study’s lead author, William Provancher, said in a statement.

Instead, he said he hoped the study would point to new touch-based directional devices to help motorists.  

“It has the potential of being a safer way of doing what’s already being done – delivering information that people are already getting with in-car GPS navigation systems,” he added.

He said the devices could also be used to help those with hearing difficulties drive more safely if they cannot hear a system’s voice, as well as helping blind pedestrians with a cane that provides directional cues to the person’s thumb.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the University of Utah and is based on a “multiple resource model” of how people process information, in which resources are senses such as vision, hearing and touch that provide information to the brain.

“The point is, it will help everybody,” Provancher said. “We all have visual and audio distractions when driving. Having the steering wheel communicate with you through your fingertips provides more reliable navigation information to the driver.”

The study also says car manufacturers already use similar systems to warn sleepy drivers – this isn’t an excuse to drive while you’re tired – of lane departures as well as monitor blind spots. However these currently twist the steering wheel instead of pulling at skin.

Provancher said  the new devices, which alert drivers through resting each index finger tips on rubber pads and use the IBM ThinkPad technology, will alert drivers by gently stretching the skin of the fingertips, are a revolutionary idea.

The boffins have already tested out the idea on 19 uni students. Six women and 13 men  participated in the study by driving a simulator. The screens that surround the driver’s seat on three sides displayed a scene in which the driver was in the centre lane of three straight motorway lanes, with no other traffic.

Four driving scenarios were used, each lasting six minutes and including, in random order, 12 cues to the driver to move to the right lane and 12 more to move left.

In two scenarios, the simulator drivers did not talk on mobile phones and received direction instructions either from the simulator’s computer voice or via the fingertip devices on the steering wheel. In the two other scenarios, the drivers talked on mobile phones with a person in the laboratory and also received direction instructions, either from the computer voice or from the touch devices on the steering wheel. Each participant did all four of the scenarios.

In the two scenarios without mobile phones, the drivers’ accuracy in correctly moving left or right was nearly identical for those who received tactile directions through their fingertips (97.2 percent) or by computerised voice (97.6 percent).

However, the study found that this all changed when the drivers talked on mobile phones while operating the simulator. When drivers received fingertip navigation directions while talking, they were accurate 98 percent of the time, but when they received audio cues to turn right or left while talking on a mobile phone, they changed lanes correctly only 74 percent of the time.

In addition to possible devices for the vision- and hearing-impaired, Provancher said the technology could be used in a handheld device to let people feel fingertip-stretch pulses – rather than hear clicks – as they scroll through an iPod music playlist. He also says it might be used as a new way to interact with an MP3 music player in a vehicle, or to control games.