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Would a steering-wheel touchscreen reduce driving deaths?

Since line-of-duty deaths for law enforcement officers are up four percent for the year as I write this, it’s small comfort that auto-related deaths are actually down 15 percent as compared to this time last year. Historically, roughly half of all officers killed in the line of duty each year die behind the wheel of their vehicles, and about half of those perish in single-vehicle incidents.

Driver distraction is probably more of a problem for cops than for private citizens, and there are more potential distractions in a patrol car than in a private vehicle. In addition to the problems of juggling cell phones and changing radio stations, cops contend with emergency light and siren controls, agitated prisoners, and often a car-mounted computer all competing for their attention. Research at a German university may indicate that moving the computer display from the center console to the steering wheel could reduce the effects of driver distraction.

The technology that makes this research even possible is contained in a prototype steering wheel with a conventional border, but has an 11mm-thick clear acrylic screen ringed with infrared LEDs in the middle. Behind the screen is a circular computer display that does not rotate as the steering wheel turns. The driver interacts with the display by multitouch gestures like those used with many cell phones and tablet computers. An infrared camera at the bottom of the panel “sees” the gestures and translates them into computer commands.

A navigational map display is zoomed in or out by touching two fingers to the screen and spreading them apart or pinching them together. Radio controls for station selection, volume and program type run via gestures, such as horizontal and vertical swipes. The designers ran out of gestures to use for some controls, and just assigned the first letter of the command as the control. The driver issues this command by drawing that letter on the steering panel with his finger.

The researchers put the setup in a driving simulator that was then used to measure driver attention while moving along the same route with the steering wheel display and then with conventional radio and steering wheel controls. Paul Marshall, a research fellow at the University of Warwick, analyzed the resulting data and concluded that the steering wheel display reduced the load on the driver’s attention and ability to react to road hazards. There is a YouTube video of such a simulation below.

What’s Next?
Proposals for the next step in this research process will be to develop a heads-up display for the panel information presently displayed on the dashboard behind the steering wheel. There are cars that offer this kind of setup as an option, but it hasn’t been especially popular. Combined with voice-activated commands, such as those used in patrol cars developed under the Project54 initiative, it might be possible to produce a patrol car with very few controls on the center console, making more room in the cockpit.

One obstacle to this design is that most vehicle airbags on the driver’s side are contained within the steering wheel. The researchers say they may be able to get around that by making a display that is thin enough to allow an air bag to break through it and deploy.

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