In-vehicle nav systems and portable GPS units have simplified our lives considerably. No more paper maps, no more directions scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin; instead, we tell our cars where we want to go and they tell us where to turn. Sounds pretty foolproof, but it really isn’t. Drivers talking on cell phones, for example, can easily miss a spoken or displayed turn. Ditto for those who prefer their music at threshold-of-pain volumes, and spoken navigation commands aren’t much use to the deaf.
Researchers at the University of Utah have developed a system that uses tactile commands to indicate a left turn or a right turn to drivers of their computer simulator. The prototype tactile navigation system mounts to a steering wheel, and subjects place the index finger of each hand on a raised button (actually a TrackPoint borrowed from an old IBM ThinkPad) mounted at the back of the wheel. When a turn is required, the system stretches the driver’s index finger in the direction of the turn.
Their research has found that cell phone impaired drivers can follow this directional advice, even when they couldn’t follow voice guided navigation instructions. Based on their testing, the accuracy rate for drivers not distracted by on cell phones was nearly identical for verbalized directions (97.6 percent accuracy) and tactile directions (97.2 percent accuracy). When simultaneously talking on a cell phone while driving, the difference was huge: verbalized directions produced 74% accuracy, while tactile directions produced 98% accuracy.
The study’s lead author, William Provancher, has already patented his design and has had discussions with leading automakers and OEM suppliers. He feels the design could be commercialized and in production within three to five years if there is sufficient demand.