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It might not be much to look at (the cloth is covering pieces of foam and wires that are held in place with packaging tape), but this is actually a haptic steering wheel developed by AT&T Labs and Carnegie Mellon University to study driver distraction levels. The wheel has embedded actuators that send pulsations notifying drivers of upcoming turns based on directions from a linked navigation system.

Navigation Can Benefit from a Shaking Steering Wheel

Haptic steering wheel developed by AT&T Labs and Carnegie Mellon University studies driver distraction levels.

Ordinarily, pulsations in a steering wheel indicate that there is a problem with the suspension, but researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (cmu.edu), working with a haptic system co-developed with AT&T Labs (research.att.com), have determined that deliberately sending pulses through a steering wheel—using actuators embedded in the rim—can help improve driver performance in following directions provided by navigation systems, thereby reducing driver distraction.

 
A study using combinations of audio, visual and haptic feedback for route guidance, found that younger drivers—there were 16 drivers between ages 16 and 36—were less distracted by a navigation system’s display screen when they received haptic feedback from the vibrating steering wheel. For older drivers—17 drivers 65 and older—the haptic feedback reinforced the auditory cues—as in the robotic voice saying things like “Turn right ahead”—they normally prefer.
 
While the haptic steering wheel generally improved driver performance and safety, the study findings suggest that giving the driver additional sensory input isn’t always beneficial. That’s particularly the case for older drivers because the additional feedback can strain the brain’s capacity to process it, resulting in sensory overload (not exactly what you want when someone is behind the wheel of a car). 
 
“Our findings suggest that, as navigation systems become more elaborate, it would be best to personalize the sensory feedback system based, at least in part, on the driver’s age,” says SeungJun Kim, systems scientist in Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII).
 
The researchers found that the propor-tion of time a driver’s eyes were off of the road was less with the combination of auditory and haptic feedback than with the audio and visual feedback typical of most conventional GPS systems – 4% less for elder drivers and 9% less for younger drivers. 
 
When there were instructions via voice, on the nav screen and vibrating steering wheel, there was not an eyes-on-the-road benefit for older drivers. Self-reports showed older drivers favored audio feedback while younger drivers relied more on visual feedback.