If drivers are yakking on cell phones and don't hear spoken instructions to turn left or right from a passenger or navigation system, they still can get directions from devices that are mounted on the steering wheel and pull skin on the driver's index fingertips left or right, a University of Utah study found.
The researchers say they don't want their results to encourage dangerous and distracted driving by cell phone users. Instead, they hope the study will point to new touch-based directional devices to help motorists and hearing-impaired people drive more safely. The same technology also could help blind pedestrians with a cane that provides directional cues to the person's thumb.
"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," says the study's lead author, William Provancher, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah.
In addition, Provancher says he is "starting to meet with the Utah Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired to better understand how our technology could help those with vision impairments. It could be used in a walking cane for the blind," with a moving button on the handle providing tactile navigation cues to help the person walk to the corner market, for example.
The system also could help hearing-impaired people get navigation information through their fingertips if they cannot hear a system's computerized voice, says University of Utah psychology Ph.D. student Nate Medeiros-Ward, the study's first author. "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."
Medeiros-Ward is scheduled to present the findings Tuesday, Sept. 28 in San Francisco during the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society's 54th annual meeting.
The study "doesn't mean it's safe to drive and talk on the cell phone," says co-author David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. "It was a test to show that even in situations where you are distracted by a cell phone, we can still communicate directional information to the driver via the fingertips even though they are 'blind' to everything else."
Provancher, Medeiros-Ward and Strayer conducted the study with Joel Cooper, who earned his psychology Ph.D. at the University of Utah and now works in Texas, and Andrew Doxon, a Utah doctoral student in mechanical engineering. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the University of Utah.
'Channels' Carry Information to the Brain
Provancher says the study was 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.
"You can only process so much," he says. "The theory is that if you provide information through different channels, you can provide more total information. Our sense of touch is currently an unexplored means of communication in the car."
But does humanity really need yet another way to provide information to drivers who already are blabbering on cell phones, texting, changing CDs or radio stations, looking at or listening to navigation devices and screaming kids—not to mention trying to watch and listen to road conditions?
"The point is, it will help everybody," Provancher says. "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."
Provancher says motorists already get some feedback through touch: vibration from missing a gear while shifting or a shimmying steering wheel due to tire problems.
"You can't look at two things at the same time," says Strayer. "You can't look at graphic display of where you should go and look out the windshield. It [touch-based information] is a nicer way to communicate with the driver without interfering with the basic information they typically need to drive safely. They need to look out the window to drive safely. They need to listen to the noise of traffic—sirens, horns and other vehicles. This tactile device provides information to the driver without taking their attention away from seeing and hearing information they need to be a safe driver."