Steering wheels could soon warm up or cool down to tell drivers when to turn left or right.
Technology being tested by Jaguar Land Rover should provide extra guidance for motorists, meaning they never have to take their eyes off the road. And the feature will be particularly useful during times of poor visibility, where drivers are struggling to see the road in heavy rain or fog.
The manufacturer's "sensory steering wheel" could minimize the need for motorists to look over at a sat nav, and limit the chance of distracted driving. The system can rapidly warm or cool one side of the steering wheel by up to six degrees C, adjustable by the driver.
JLR said it would be used to "inform drivers where to turn, when to change lane or to warn of an approaching junction" - and could help when the road layout is confusing. The steering wheel could also be used for less urgent notifications like low fuel or points of interest that are coming up.
Concerns are growing over visible or audible signals from sat navs distracting motorists and causing accidents. "Distraction in vehicle" was listed as contributing to 2,823 road accidents in 2017, according to the Department for Transport - almost eight a day. Unfortunately, those collisions included 459 that were serious and 79 fatalities.
Motorists already face hefty penalties if they are distracted by a mobile phone or sat nav while driving. The offense carries a £200 ($250)on-the-spot fine and six penalty points [in the U.K.], which can be increased to as much as £1,000 ($1,250) and a driving ban if the case goes to court.
JLR's steering wheel tech is being developed as part of a research program with Glasgow University, so it hasn't reached the production line yet. Vibrations through the steering wheel have become a common feature on new cars, but JLR said warnings of this kind could be "unnecessarily attention-grabbing".
The company said other technology similar to temperature-based directions could be installed in self-driving cars to indicate when "handover to autonomous control" is complete, so drivers know when it's safe to take their hands off the wheel.
Alexandros Mouzakitis, Jaguar Land Rover Electrical Research Senior Manager, said: “Safety is a number one priority for Jaguar Land Rover and we are committed to continuously improving our vehicles with the latest technological developments as well as preparing the business for a self-driving future.
“The ‘sensory steering wheel’ is all part of this vision, with thermal cues able to reduce the amount of time drivers have to take their eyes off the road. Research has shown people readily understand the heating and cooling dynamics to denote directions and the subtlety of temperature change can be perfect for certain feedback that doesn’t require a more intrusive audio or vibration-based cue.”