The Ideal Steering Wheel For Self-Driving Cars Is Just . . . Your Fing

Entertainment By Elena Boaghi |

How do you drive a self-driving car? Why would you drive a self-driving car? It’s a paradox. When a robot takes the wheel, the human driver becomes inherently secondary–so much so that Google was the first of many more companies to remove the wheel in self-driving cars altogether. In Google’s mind, it was always a matter of safety, because if people believe a robot driver could take over at any moment, they won’t drive as carefully.

But maybe there’s a halfway controller–not a wheel, but something to give the driver of tomorrow a feeling of influence over the direction of their own vehicle, if not full control.

[Image: courtesy Felix Ros]

Scribble is just that. A prototype built by master’s student Felix Ros, it’s a one-fingered haptic controller that sits by your gear shift (coincidentally, the same spot MAP Project Office designed its own future car controller for, too).

Like a joystick for your index finger, you can “draw” your way through traffic, telling the car to change lanes around a slow driver, a sudden onslaught of potholes, or a road worker. The car doesn’t respond immediately like a steering wheel, but it queues the plan into its navigation, to be executed safely with the flow of traffic. In the meantime, a screen shows your drawing amidst a real-time display of the vehicles around you, so you know your car is listening to you–the master and commander of pavement.

Haptic feedback allows the system to give the driver subtle signals without talking to them or forcing them to reference the display. Tiny motors in Scribble can push back on a user’s finger, either to smooth one’s movements to ensure a more comfortable path or warn them of a hazard ahead.

Truth be told, Scribble shares a lot of similarity to a suggestion made by UX legend Don Norman back in 2012. He posited that a self-driving car should operate more like you’d handle a horse, complete with reigns that suggest, but cannot entirely control, the independent mind on which you ride. “Even when you’re in control, the horse is still doing the low-level guidance, stepping safely to avoid holes and obstacles,” Norman said. As a result, riding a horse doesn’t feel like you’re being coddled. No–horseback riding can be thrilling because this powerful beast is actually working hard to protect you (and itself) at every moment along the way. At the price of total control, a horse amplifies your abilities 10-fold and makes you feel like something of a god as a result.

Right now, no one can say with certainty that they know what the future of driving will look like–or if, in an era in which Uber and Lyft may literally reshape our public streets, we’ll want to own or drive cars at all. But Scribble is proof that a lot of good thinking is going into this space. And because of that, it may be as thrilling to drive a Ferrari 25 years from now as it is today.

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