AT&T Gets Crazy Futuristic

In an effort to combat distracted driving and its estimated 3,000 casualties per year in the U.S., AT&T (NYSE:T) has reinvented the wheel — the steering wheel, that is.

AT&T Labs created a vibrating steering wheel that gives off a clockwise pattern of vibrations when you need to turn right, and a counterclockwise pattern of vibrations when you need to turn left. The initial prototype focuses on delivery of GPS navigation instructions, but other applications are in the works, such as letting drivers know when a car is in their blind spot, a technology known as haptics.

A study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University found the wheel to be beneficial for younger drivers (average age 25), but not so much with older drivers. SeungJun Kim, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon who participated in the study, said “by adding the haptic feedback we can lead to more attentive driving.”

Kevin Li, a researcher with AT&T’s user interface group in Florham Park, New Jersey, admonishes that while the lab is working with automakers on the technology, it will be years before the device makes it onto actual roads. Li asks, “An underlying thread of this research is, can we develop great haptic and tactile cues that users ‘get’ right out of the box?”

As cars become more computerized, and smartphones more ubiquitous, there has been more encouragement to develop technologies that tackle the issue of distracted driving. Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board called for the first-ever nationwide ban on driver use of portable electronic devices while driving. Research has shown that talking on a phone while driving ups the crash factor by four, and that texting multiplies the risk by 23. Partial or complete bans — on text messaging in particular — have already been implemented in many countries and U.S. states.

Other companies are developing technology that reduces distractions. Some devices can block calls or text messages when the phone senses that it’s in a moving car. Other tools can sense if a phone is being used by a driver, as opposed to a passenger, within a vehicle. These methods recognize the synergy and growing potential between the automotive and mobile phone industries.

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