A new soft robotic steering wheel aims to improve the wellbeing of Gig economy drivers.
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Designers and design researchers at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) have developed a prototype soft robotic steering wheel designed to make the work of steering easier. Many tech companies have been focusing on developing tools for autonomous driving, such as software that anticipates human reactions and a steering wheel that integrates gesture controls. Yet, few have stopped to consider the well-being of the driver. The RCA designers began by conducting studies of Uber drivers. They found that the drivers’ mental health often suffered from their isolation and the need to concentrate on passengers, their GPS, the Uber app and the road all at the same time.
To address the mental strain of driving for long hours, the designers created a way to improve the interface between driver and app. They devised a soft robotic steering wheel with an inflatable silicon insert that can be easily attached to most existing steering wheels. The wheel can connect to the Uber navigation system and send signals to the steering wheel. Before a turn, the wheel inflates slightly on the right or left, providing a tactile clue as to which way to turn the wheel. It also provides cushioning making driving more comfortable. This inflation and deflation helps the driver to navigate without needing to look at the GPS or phone. This allows the driver to stay focused on the road.
The steering wheel forms part of a larger project focusing on innovations that allow humans to expand their capacities beyond their natural limitations (transhumanism). The goal of the researchers was to think about how robotics can be used to help people, instead of phasing them out. There are no plans to manufacture the wheels at present. Could similar devices improve the way that humans and machines work together?