A Vibrating Steering Wheel For Blind Spots

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Seeing the road can be a challenge while driving in nasty conditions like full-on glare or pea soup fog. To solve it, two scientists in Nevada have came up with a steering wheel that can guide drivers through rough spots when they’re temporarily blinded.

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Eelke Folmer, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Nevada in Reno, along with research assistant Burkay Sucu came up with a novel driver interface. Unlike other smart steering wheel interfaces that nudge drivers, the goal with this one was to tell a driver exactly how much to turn through a curve.

Their system works by using two “vibrotactors” affixed to either side of the steering wheel. These joystick-like protrusions provide haptic feedback similar to a cell phone buzz. As the driver encounters blinding conditions, the vibrotactors send vibrations to each hand in patterns similar to the ones from rumble strips on the highway. This is intended to keep you from driving over the edges of the lane.

To work in real life, this interface would require an “intelligent vehicle positioning system” that incorporates data on the road’s curvature, the car’s position and the visibility conditions. We’re definitely not there yet, so the scientists used a driving simulator in the lab.

Folmer and Sucu performed several studies in the lab with their set-up. They found that the interface enabled blind steering in small curves, and they anticipate that it can improve a driver’s ability to stay in the lane. Their research (PDF) will be presented next week at the International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces in Santa Monica, California.

If a vibrating wheel sounds familiar, it’s probably because these haptic steering concepts are emerging left and right — pun intended. Last year a team from AT&T Research Labs and Carnegie Mellon made the news with a prototype wheel containing tiny motors that vibrate increasingly as the driver heads into a turn. Depending on the turn, the vibrations head in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction.

Then there are Google’s self-driving cars in development, which could one day help prevent thousands of traffic deaths annually, including those due to distracted driving.

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In the meantime, drivers currently hampered by blazing sunlight will do what we’ve usually done without tech to help: keep our visors in the most strategic place possible and proceed carefully. When visibility is gone completely, drivers will still consider pulling over until things improve. And while they’re safely stopped, they might ponder a future where our cars drive themselves through this stuff just fine.

Credit: David Frazier/Corbis