While car companies and others have pegged voice commands as the answer to multitasking while driving, some research shows that being distracted mentally can be just as dangerous as taking your eyes off the road — a finding that's led the National Transportation Safety Board to recommend a ban on all cellphone use in cars. If voice commands aren't good, how can we get directions from a GPS? AT&T Labs and Carnegie Mellon University think they have the solution: a steering wheel with haptic feedback. According to Technology Review, the wheel has 20 actuators and sends "left" or "right" signals to the driver via a vibration through the wheel that moves counterclockwise or clockwise, respectively.
For now, the system is designed to work in conjunction with a traditional GPS unit, but in studies it appears to be making some improvements. When tested on drivers with an average age of 25, the researchers found that the users spent 3.1 percent more time looking at the road. While that same test didn't make a difference in users over 65 years of age, they did spend 4 percent more time focused on the road when using the steering wheel in conjunction with a speech system (but without a visual aid). If the safety numbers don't sway you, you might be interested in the steering wheel because drivers made fewer errors when using it compared to a traditional GPS system. We think it'd be difficult to get all of the commands you need just from a vibrating steering wheel, and that's one of the reasons why one AT&T researcher says that device is a ways off from being integrated into cars, even though they are already working with some auto manufacturers. As he says, "can we develop great haptic and tactile cues that users 'get' right out of the box?"