Vibrating steering wheel could help drivers navigate

A study participant grips a haptic, or vibrating, steering wheel in this driving simulator at Carnegie Mellon University.

By Brandon Griggs, CNN

Trying to find an address in an unfamiliar neighborhood can be a challenge even with a GPS device.

Peering at the small screen on your dashboard distracts your eyes from the road ahead. The spoken navigation commands can be confusing -- did she mean turn here, or at the next street? And pulling up your location on your phone while behind the wheel is dangerous.

Researchers at AT&T Labs and Carnegie Mellon University may have a solution: a steering wheel that uses haptic technology -- the same thing that makes your phone vibrate -- to alert drivers when it's time to make a turn.

This prototype wheel contains 20 vibrating motors to signal drivers.

    The wheel, still a prototype at this point, is synced with a GPS-equipped computer and fitted with 20 little motors that send vibrations to the driver's hands. The vibrations move in a pattern: clockwise for right turns, counter-clockwise for left -- and can escalate as the driver nears an intersection.

    Instead of hearing a voice and having to process verbal instructions, "drivers get this intuitive sense of which way to turn," said Kevin A. Li, an AT&T Labs researcher who worked on the project. "Users don't really have to think about it. They just get it."

    A team of researchers spent about a year developing the prototype. They hope its tactile feedback will be especially beneficial to elderly drivers, for whom turn-by-turn GPS systems can be confusing.

    The results of a pilot study at Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute suggest the wheel can help keep motorists focused on the road longer.

    In the study, 33 "drivers" -- about half of them in their 20s; the other half over 65 -- sat at a driving simulator wearing sensors that tracked their eye movements and measured their driving performance. The drivers navigated a 3-D rendering of Pittsburgh's streets, complete with pedestrians, while receiving directions via combinations of a GPS map display, audio commands and the vibrating wheel.

    The study found that gripping the vibrating wheel, when combined with auditory commands, kept the older drivers' eyes on the road 4% longer than if they used a map display and auditory commands. The haptic steering wheel increased younger drivers' attentiveness to the road by 9%, said Carnegie Mellon researcher SeungJun Kim, the lead author of the study.

    The vibrating wheel was less effective in reducing way-finding errors, the study found. Results of the study will be presented at a computing conference in June.

    Automakers, increasingly focused on safety as they add more computerized bells and whistles to their vehicles, are no doubt intrigued by the potential consumer applications of this technology.

    This post is part of CNNMoney/CNN's "Future of Tech" series. For more, visit CNNMoney/technology.