by Jacques Gordon
“Haptic” is a word rooted in the Greek language that means ‘to touch.’ Haptic technology, typically called ‘haptics,’ enables a machine to communicate with a human though the sense of touch. If you’ve ever felt a cell phone vibrate in your hand to indicate an incoming call, that’s haptics.
While the concept dates to ancient times, modern haptics was developed in the 1950s to mimic the feeling of resistance in the controls of fly-by-wire aircraft. In more recent applications, haptic technology is used in Lexus (and other) vehicles that have Electronically Controlled Brakes (ECB). A hydraulic piston connected to the pedal provides the progressive resistance we’re all accustomed to feeling, but in normal operation it doesn’t activate the brakes; it’s purely there for feel. In automotive (and other vehicle) applications, haptics are designed to let humans to feel what they expect to feel as the vehicle reacts to control inputs.
Now there’s a new application, and it’s being used in a very different way. The latest Hyundai Equus and Genesis models have a haptic steering wheel that is used for lane departure warning. Instead of creating a feedback signal in response to a driver’s actions, the haptic steering wheel will generate a tactile signal that tells the driver what to do.
The steering wheel has a series of vibrators in the rim, and the vibrations tell the driver to steer left or right depending on which vibrators are activated. Testing of haptic steering wheels began back in 2010, and while the technology itself is not difficult, extensive research and development went into determining how it should be used and how effective it can be. Originally it was expected to be used with a vehicle’s navigation system, providing an additional clue to the driver as to exactly when to execute a turn. However Hyundai has chosen a different path.
Lane keeping utilizes cameras and/or other optical sensors to detect the lines on the side of the road. If the vehicle drifts towards a line, the electric power steering system is activated to momentarily ‘nudge’ the steering wheel in the opposite direction. It won’t actually steer the vehicle, and it can be ignored or overcome with very little effort. In the strictest sense, this is also haptics, but it’s not a bit of hardware dedicated to communicating with the driver; it’s manipulation of the vehicle itself. With the vibrating elements in the steering wheel, more information can be communicated, such as how far to turn the wheel, how long to keep it there, and when to turn back. As researchers learn more about how humans instinctively respond to tactile messages, with just a few additional lines of software Hyundai’s haptic steering wheel may well be used to communicate additional messages in the future.
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