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A Steering Wheel With Ideas Of Its Own

October 14 2010 | by

Two hands on an automobile steering wheel equipped with a device that provides tactile feedback.

The dramatic increase in the usage of GPS navigation devices among automobile drivers in the U.S. has been nothing short of amazing. Only a few years ago, drivers often pulled over on the roadside, asked passersby for directions, consulted faded and dog-eared AAA maps, and sometimes squinted at hard-to-read signs at night. Today, a driver equipped with a GPS device can navigate the narrow, complex and tortuous streets of downtown Boston without getting lost — a feat that would otherwise be unimaginable for non-Bostonians.

For deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers, the GPS devices have also been helpful, bailing them out of situations where they would otherwise get lost and have difficulty talking to someone for directions, or calling someone for assistance (as phones present a challenge for people who are deaf). However, there is one aspect of the GPS devices that presents a distraction for deaf drivers. While hearing drivers can hear voice commands from their GPS devices, deaf drivers often have to glance at the GPS screens so they can navigate properly. When this takes their eyes off the road, this almost becomes as much of a distraction for deaf drivers as cellphones are for hearing drivers.

Help may be on the horizon. A fascinating article on CNET News titled “Hearing Impaired? Steering Wheel Can Guide You” (September 27, 2010) talks about University of Utah researchers who have been analyzing steering wheel devices that provide tactile feedback to drivers. These devices deliver information to a driver by pressing on the skins of his/her hands, telling the driver to turn left or right. If designed properly, these devices have the potential to deliver appropriate information from a GPS device to a deaf driver, enabling him or her to navigate the road without necessarily looking at the GPS screen display.

Whether this becomes a commercial reality for the deaf and hard-of-hearing market is hard to forecast at this point, since it is difficult to quantify whether this would actually improve safety for deaf drivers. Hearing drivers already have many visual distractions when driving, such as glancing at the speedometer to stay under the speed limit, checking the CD player, or reading the multitude of signs on busy, highly-traveled downtown roads. So, by that token, the argument that tactile-feedback devices improve safety for deaf drivers using GPS is moot.

However, if deaf drivers want convenience, peace of mind and a sense of security when using GPS, then tactile-feedback GPS has potential. This type of technology already has spawned applications for the blind and physically disabled, and this is an excellent example of how a new technology can have unexpected uses beyond what it is originally intended for.

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