Safety is key for new thermal steering wheel developed by University of Glasgow and Jaguar Land Rover

A STEERING wheel that uses heat to tell drivers when to turn has been developed by scientists at Glasgow University in a partnership with Jaguar Land Rover. It is hoped the thermal steering wheel will help to keep drivers’ eyes on the road and cut the number of crashes.

Driver distraction is a major contributor to road accidents around the world and accounts for 10 per cent of all fatal crashes in the USA alone. The new research suggests thermal cues could be a way to keep drivers fully focused on the road.

“Cars are getting more and more sensors in them and can detect a lot of information about the road,” pointed out Stephen Brewster, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Glasgow. “They are becoming rich in terms of what they can do but the humans driving them are just the same as they have always been and can become overloaded with too much information.”

The researchers wanted to find a way of giving drivers information in a simple way without distracting or confusing them.

“We don’t want to distract them from the road so we are trying to avoid too many visual displays,” said Professor Brewster. 

“Audio is also not much use as drivers are often playing music and vibration isn’t really an option either as it could be confused with the vibrations from the road.

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Stephen Brewster, Professor of Human-Computer Interactions at the University of Glasgow has been working to develop the new sensory technology

“Temperature is not really used much when it comes to human interaction with devices so we wondered if warming and cooling could be used to improve driving.” Whenever you touch something with bare skin you feel its temperature, from a hot cup of coffee to a cold glass of milk. 

The outcome of the research is a “sensory steering wheel”, parts of which can be quickly heated and cooled to inform drivers where to turn, when to change lane or to warn of an approaching junction.

This could be particularly useful when visibility is reduced through poor weather or the layout of the road. The technology has also been applied to the gear-shift paddles to indicate when hand over from the driver to autonomous control in future self-driving vehicles is complete.

The technology used is a Peltier heat pump, a thermoelectric device which transfers heat between its two sides, making one side warm up and the other cool down. 

“Many cars already have heated steering wheels and although it is quite easy to heat things up it is harder to cool them down,” said Brewster. “The Peltier can heat and cool very quickly and accurately”.

 “It is often used for situations where you have to maintain a stable temperature very precisely. With our steering wheel we don’t need to be too precise. We don’t use a big temperature range - just enough for people to  notice. 

“Humans aren’t very good thermometers and don’t detect exactly what the temperature is but they are good at detecting changes and you can detect these very quickly and very reliably. 

“We don’t have to burn and freeze you as it can be done quite comfortably. We only need to change the temperature up or down by 6 degrees C to be very noticeable.”

The wheel can be relied on to accurately convey information it receives from the sat nav device in the car. “It won’t make mistakes and the information is coming straight into your hands which are doing the steering, making it fact and accurate,” said Professor Brewster.

The Jaguar Land Rover-funded research is part of a PhD study undertaken by Patrizia Di Campli San Vito in the School of Computing Science at Glasgow University as part of its Glasgow Interactive Systems Research Section (GIST) and the School of Psychology. 

The group is focusing on new user interfaces for drivers and passengers for future vehicles.