Driving by the seat of your pants

Auto-engineers are developing car seat sensors to ‘nudge’ people to take the right turns rather than relying on complicated visual satellite navigation controls. Max Glaskin reports.

Do not read this. Stop right now. Put it away. But, hey, it’s not that easy, is it? Humans crave information. We want to know what’s round the next bend – or in the next paragraph – so we lap it up and suffer information overload. And that can slow us down.

Still reading? OK, here’s your reward. One word: haptics. It’s the future for information transmission, and it has been lurking for a decade. Now haptics is going global. When a person is bogged down with information coming at them through their eyes and ears, haptics devices utilise the one channel that can still pump vital data into their brain: touch.

Which is why auto-engineers are getting all touchy-feely about cars. They’re putting their collective finger on a neglected sense and are tickling it to see how we respond. Perhaps they grew up with the first generation of force-feedback video game joysticks. Or maybe they have been pampered with company-sponsored massages designed to liberate their creative juices.

Whatever the inspiration for these extra-sensory conceptions, haptic devices are on their way to a car near you. In Stuttgart, DaimlerChrysler has already built a demonstrator S-Class Mercedes with an accelerator that vibrates when the car detects it’s time to step off the gas. It’s gentle 15MHz rumble lasts only a second, but it’s impossible to ignore, no matter how much may be happening on the dashboard, the stereo and the road outside. The message is louder and clearer than a Day-Glo Jumbotron with Trent engines for speakers, even though the actuator is silent and smaller than a Hobnob. That’s the power of haptics.

Now Jan van Erp of TNO Human Factors in Soesterberg, the Netherlands, has used haptics to perfect the silent and invisible in-car satellite navigation system. Instead of relying on an irritating pre-recorded voice and LED screen to tell the driver which way to turn, it uses haptic nudges that work the sensitivity of the human backside.

The system is a spin-off from haptic vests, which he and his colleagues have been developing for jet pilots who get spatially disoriented during high- speed manoeuvres; the vests detect which way is up and then ‘prod’ the pilot before he performs what is euphemistically known as a ‘controlled flight into terrain’.

Last month van Erp’s vest was used during experiments on the International Space Station to help understand the motion sickness that astronauts suffer. The vest is lined with an array of small actuators, like the ones used to make mobile phones and pagers vibrate. Now one car manufacturer – van Erp is sworn to secrecy about its identity – has taken the technology and is building it into car seats. Whenever the satnav suggests a turn is needed the actuators on that side of the seat begin to vibrate, speeding up as the turning gets closer.

If you are thinking of buying a new car you may want to delay the decision for two years, because that’s when the haptic seat will make its debut on executive saloons.

Meanwhile, researcher Alain Muzet of the French national engineering labs, is using haptics in reverse – to give the car information about the driver. He is fitting a steering wheel with sensors to detect the strength and constancy of the hands that grip it. Muzet’s reasoning was that if the fingers started to slacken this could be a reliable indicator that the driver is falling asleep at the wheel. If the research proves his point he should marry his technology with van Erp’s. Then, when a grip-o-meter in the steering wheel sensed that the driver was nodding off, the vibrating actuators in the seat could prod him all over. That should do the trick.

But haptics is nothing to laugh about, no matter how ticklish you may be. As Prof George Mather, a psychologist at Sussex University, told the Total Vehicle Technology conference last month: ‘Driving presents one of the most challenging sensory-motor tasks most people are likely to encounter in their daily lives. The driver must assimilate all this information and produce appropriate motor responses to retain safe control of the vehicle.’

There is no doubt that sense of touch is underused in cars. Dashboard displays already present a boggling amount of information to fight for the attention of our eyes. Tom Kenny, deputy director of the digital design studio at the Glasgow School of Art, has argued that some of these displays should be amalgamated to reduce the burden. For example, satnav screens could be eliminated and existing icons, such as indicators, could be modified to impart the same information. However, such research is still on the whole visually based.

The time is right to push haptics. ‘Haptics is appealing because it is instinctive,’ said van Erp, ‘like a tap on the shoulder.’ And when it has been integrated into cars over the next decade it will also find its way into other consumer technologies. A computer mouse that applies the brakes when it rolls over a hyperlink? A mobile phone that pulses like a heart when it detects a waiting call?

Sorry, didn’t mean to overload you with ideas. It must be time to touch and go.

Max Glaskin is a freelance technology writer.