Let Your Fingers Do the Driving

If you don’t hear directions, you can feel them.

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The new study says automakers already use some tactile systems to warn of lane departures by drowsy drivers and monitor blind spots. But these devices generally twist the steering wheel (assisted steering), rather than simply prompting the driver to do so.

Drivers on Cell Phones Often Don't Hear Directions, but Can Feel Them

The study was conducted on a driving simulator that Strayer has used to demonstrate the hazards of driving while talking or texting on a cell phone. Two of Provancher's devices to convey information by touch were attached to the simulator's steering wheel so one came in contact with the index finger on each of the driver's hands.

During driving, each index fingertip rested on a red TrackPoint cap from an IBM ThinkPad computer - those little things that look like the eraser on the end of a pencil. When the drivers were supposed to turn left, the two touch devices gently stretched the skin of the fingertips to the left (counter clockwise); when a right turn was directed, the TrackPoint tugged the skin of the fingertips to the right (clockwise).

Nineteen University of Utah undergraduate students—six women and 13 men—participated in the study by driving the simulator. The screens that surround the driver's seat on three sides displayed a scene in which the driver was in the center lane of three straight freeway 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 cell 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 cell 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. The results:

  • In the two scenarios without cell 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 computerized voice (97.6 percent).
    • That changed when the drivers talked on cell 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 cell phone, they changed lanes correctly only 74 percent of the time.
    • Strayer says the findings shouldn't be used to encourage cell phone use while driving because even if giving drivers directional information by touch works, "it's not going to help you with the other things you need to do while driving—watching out for pedestrians, noticing traffic lights, all the things you need to pay attention to."

      A Touch of Product Development?

      Provancher has patents and wants to commercialize his tactile feedback devices for steering wheels and other potential uses.

      "If we were approached by an interested automaker, it could be in their production cars in three to five years," he says, noting he already has had preliminary talks with three automakers and a European original equipment manufacturer.

      In addition to possible devices for the vision- and hearing-impaired, Provancher says 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.

      Provancher set the stage for the tactile navigation devices in two research papers this year in the journal Transactions on Haptics, published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Haptics is to the sense of touch what optics is to vision.