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Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and AT&T Labs are developing a vibrating steering that will give drivers guidance through touch, allowing drivers to keep their eyes on the road, ScienceDaily reports in a news story this week. Using the sense of touch will give a car’s navigation system another means of communicating information. In a study conducted by the two institutions, researchers found that younger drivers were not as distracted by a car’s navigation system display screen when they received cues from the vibrating steering wheel. For elder drivers, the news story explains, the cues from the vibrating steering wheel augmented the sound cues they normally prefer.

Steering wheel from a 1990 Geo Storm GSi, with...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The researchers found that while touch cues in most cases improved driver safety and ability, merely adding sensory cues isn’t always best. This was especially true for older drivers because the additional information could strain the capacity of the brain to process it. The study revealed that it would be best to personalize the sensory feedback from a car’s navigation system, based somewhat on the driver’s age.

Some car manufacturers already have vibrating steering wheels available, which can let a driver know about road hazards, for example. The vibrating steering wheel that AT&T is developing, however, will offer more information. Twenty spots on the steering wheel’s rim can be pulsed in any order. The study examined firing the spots in a clockwise order, which told a driver to make a right turn, with a counterclockwise order telling a driver to turn left.

The researchers particularly wanted to examine if information conveyed to different senses—sight, hearing, touch—at the same time would improve elderly drivers’ performance. As the ScienceDaily news story explains, the number of people who are over age 65 and drive is growing quickly, and improving their driving ability as their vision, hearing and mobility declines with age will help them remain mobile and independent.

The researchers studied 16 drivers who ranged from 16 to 36, and 17 drivers who were over 65 years old. Using driving simulators, they discovered that the amount of time that drivers took their eyes off the road was a great deal less with the combination of sound and touch feedback than with sound and visual feedback that is used in most GPS systems. Elder drivers took their eyes off the road 4 percent less with the sound and touch combination, and young drivers 9 percent less.

When all three cues were used—hearing, visual, and touch—young drivers reduced, by a significant amount, the time their eyes were off the road, but not the drivers who were older. The researchers said this could be due to the preference the drivers expressed. Older drivers preferred sound feedback and younger drivers preferred visual feedback. Combining all three information cues—sound, visual, touch—created a burden for older drivers to process the information. Personalizing technology for age and individual preference will help drivers focus on their driving.

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