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Safety: Reducing driver distraction while multitasking

Is touch-sensitivity the next big thing for in-vehicle technologies?

Safety: reducing driver distraction while multitasking

The multitasking challenge

For many people, ‘working on the move’ means multitasking while travelling, though there has also been a long struggle with mobile technology and driver distraction since the first ‘brick’ phones came along for the ride.

The simplest driver safety rule is ‘hands off’ the device, but until recently many remote control or ‘hands free’ options – including voice – were fiddly. Clumsy controls cause input errors, which are distractions themselves.

Touch screen technology has existed in some form for more than half a century though it took miniaturisation and mobilisation of the tech to make it really popular. In turn, it helped make smartphones and tablets essential kit for mobile workers.

Now some of the world’s biggest tech companies want to make virtual touch feel a lot more real.

Smart vehicle trend #1: built-in compatibility with existing tech

Technologies such as Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto were designed to help some drivers and passengers use compatible apps in compatible cars, with voice, knob, button or touchscreen controls – but what about non-compatible vehicles? And what about reducing input errors?

The next generation of in-vehicle controls for smart devices could look simpler, with fewer knobs and buttons.

These new controls will exploit sophisticated gesture and touch-pressure sensors to speed up interaction time for common activities such as answering calls and controlling apps for music, maps and messaging – all while helping to minimise driver distraction.

Smart vehicle trend #2: touch but don’t look

Melbourne-based Radiomize wants to retrofit older vehicles so they become ‘connected cars’ by putting some of IBM’s thumb gesture technology into the thumb pad of a slip-on steering wheel cover. The technology is designed to control different functions of a dash-mounted smart device with different thumb pressures and gestures on the thumb pad.

Meanwhile, Synaptics is working with vehicle supplier Valeo on a control system using its touch-force-sensitive ClearForce and haptic technologies for in-vehicle touchscreens. The big idea of combining multi-touch sensitivity and haptic feedback is to allow drivers greater control by ‘feel’ rather than sight, which is how most drivers already operate their car stereos.

Bosch is also using haptic feedback in a touchscreen technology called NeoSense, which includes a set of programmable buttons that feel different from each other. A smooth button could be programmed to control temperature, a groovy button could control music and a bumpy button could control maps, with the level of pressure (and force feedback) altering the action.

Smart vehicle trend #3: feeling the road ahead

Apple’s 3D Touch on the iPhone 6S is a hint of what’s to come in mainstream mobile computing, as it uses pressure-sensitivity to trigger different interactions and the Taptic Engine for vibrating feedback.

Still, some of the most interesting advances in tactile interface design are aimed at improving accessibility for visually-impaired people – and they could readily be built into controls for devices used in vehicles too.

An Austrian company called Blitab has already invented a tablet for visually-impaired people, which changes its surface feel with tiny on-screen bubbles to form Braille, as well as converting text-to-speech on the fly (and vice versa).

Similarly, Tactus in California has a simple ‘morphing’ touchscreen overlay called Phorm to help with touch typing on tablets. Taking cues from the shape-shifting table developed at MIT, Tactus plans to offer a more fluid (or ‘microfluid’) tactile interface – one that could possibly help drivers feel the road ahead.

Why has touch been so important in the evolution of mobile computing?

Because when it works well, it’s the fastest, most natural method for humans to select and interact with objects – virtual or otherwise.

And speeding up common tasks is one of the easiest ways to lift productivity on the move.

So, what all these advances in tactile and hands free technologies suggest is that the interfaces drivers engage to manage tasks on the move will not only feel more intuitive – they’ll let drivers feel a lot more in control.

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