A Steering Wheel That Steers You?

What if your steering wheel gave you feedback? Researchers in “haptics,” or the science of the sense of touch, think it should.

steering wheel


The sense of touch is generally underused, according to a new study by University of Utah researchers. William Provancher, a Utah engineering professor, wondered what would happen if on top of visual and auditory cues, drivers were given tactile cues while steering. He and his fellow researchers mounted a device on the steering wheel of a car that stretched the driver’s index finger in the direction of an upcoming turn, and discovered that even when drivers missed verbal cues signaling when to turn, they did process the tactile cues. Co-author Nate Medeiros-Ward will present the findings tomorrow at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

Immediately, opportunities for abuse spring to mind. Incorrigible cell phone talkers might use such a device to justify their habit, as though the tactile system compensated for their distracted driving. But that’s not the point, say Provancher and others. The hope is that the device might serve as a sort of GPS for the hearing-impaired, delivering tactile turning cues at the right moment. Generally, said Provancher recently, “Our sense of touch is currently an unexplored means of communication in the car.” And outside of it, too–since he envisions that the technology could be used in a walking cane for the blind, or in directing the attention of air-traffic controllers, among other uses.

At the heart of the new technology is something called the “multiple resource model” of information processing. The idea is that as one sensory channel becomes overloaded–as the visual field becomes fully stimulated, and our sense of hearing becomes overwhelmed with cues–other channels to the brain become better conduits for information. Provancher has patented some of the technology and would like to commercialize it; he says he has talked with three car companies already.

Provancher, indeed, is something of an evangelist of “haptics,” or the science of the sense of touch, having published several papers in the field already in this year alone. But taking the long view, why not go a step further? What could we communicate using our sense of smell or taste? Imagine, if you will, a device that makes driving even safer, easier, and more delicious–by offering sweet cues to indicate left, and savory ones to indicate right.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.