This Transforming Steering Wheel Quickly Returns Human Control in Semi-Autonomous Cars

No matter much we car enthusiasts hate to admit it, self-driving cars are an inevitable part of the future. The goal, of course, is to eventually have cars that can drive completely autonomously in all situations and road conditions. But, that’s going to take some time, and the transition is going to require some balance of autonomy and human intervention.

Not paying attention? This robotic steering wheel will nudge you. (📷: Brian Mok/IEEE Spectrum)

Under normal circumstances, self-driving cars perform well—far better than humans, in fact. But, they have trouble with unpredictable and unknown conditions, and need to be able to hand over control to a human driver when they don’t know what to do. Unfortunately, getting a human to take back control quickly is pretty difficult. That’s largely due to the fact that we don’t pay much attention when we’re not actively driving, so grabbing a driver’s attention is key.

To get a driver’s attention fast and expedite the transition to human control, researchers at Stanford have been conducting studies with a novel transforming steering wheel. When the car is in autonomous mode, the steering wheel tucks itself away. Then, if human intervention is required, the steering wheel immediately unfolds so the driver can take over.

In their study, the Stanford team tested this against a more conventional steering wheel that basically just blinks a light to notify the driver when it’s time to take control. This was all done in a simulation that had the self-driving car approach a construction zone where the driver would need to react quickly. With the light-equipped steering wheel, the simulation often ended in a crash. But, with the transforming steering wheel participants were able to intervene much more quickly and avoid crashes more often.