Interview: Inventor of the SteerClear Wheel - the next generation of steering wheels

mountains-691186_1280Wireless and Internet of Things technology is changing at an alarming rate. It is seldom that we see a truly original concept in technology circles. The SteerClear Wheel the next generation in SteerWheel technology connecting to the driver, the car and wirelessly to smart cities to steer drivers of all ages in the right direction.

We sat down with inventor of the SteerClear Wheel, Lynn Walford who reveals the how, what and why of the technology. The first thing you notice about Lynn is her upbeat personality and wry sense of humor. While spewing out the most technical details it seems like she is your best friend.

WMN: Why did you invent the SteerClear Wheel?

I invented the SteerClear Wheel because I saw a great need to help drivers stay safe while driving. Also, for many years when I have been driving vehicles, I noticed that the steering wheel often  blocks vital information on the instrument cluster. Also, I'm a Boomer (Baby Boomer) and I noticed that my friends are losing their hearing.  Many ADAS features are based on alarms that sound which people who are hard of hearing cannot hear. Additionally, I wanted something that was secure and easy to use.

I noticed a lot of automotive engineers tend to make things a lot more complicated than they really should be.

WMN: Who are the customers for the SteerClear Wheel?

The first customers for the SteerClear Wheel are luxury and high-end automakers who cater to drivers who need assistance or like new technology. For example Boomers are the highest car buying segment and also buy luxury cars and like features that can help them

Automakers that deploy the SteerClear Wheel will be able to differentiate their product from other automakers who tend to put all the technology in confusing screens all over the car which can be very distracting.

WMN: Please describe the features of SteerClear Wheel—

The SteerClear Wheel is a connected steering wheel with a transparent driver-facing layer, embedded color changing lights, tactile vibrations, information, sensors and security designed to keep drivers of all sizes and ages safe, secure and on-course.

The SteerClear Wheel communicates intuitively to the driver through directional vibrations, light motions and color cues.

Where did the idea for the SteerClear Wheel come from?

LynnFullpiceditedIt all started very simply, I was driving one day and I couldn't see my instrument cluster.I thought well why  do I have to look so far away to the dash when the wheel is very close to me and very easy to see.

I have seen haptic sensations used and devices for the last 20 years to communicate information and different types of products/ devices with touchscreens. In the case of the SteerClear Wheel, a touchscreen is not necessary because drivers can feel vibrations in their hands. In fact, there are very large amounts of sensations in the hands and research showed that the hands themselves can interpret touch sensations before they go to the brain for processing.

Humans learn and respond to touch. On a very simple level when you teach your child, you hold their hand and say, “Go this way,” the child learns what direction to go via the feeling in his/her hands. The SteerClear Wheel is like a parent is holding your hand while driving, you can get a lot of information through someone's hand when they are guiding you. Those of use who practice ballroom dancing, are completely guided by hands into a turn or waltz.

The colored lights and flashing add another level of communication to make it easier for navigation features and smart city features.

The steering wheel is the closest connection to the vehicle itself and the driver. Since our hands are so sensitive, it makes sense to communicate to hands of the driver.

WMN: What kinds of material do you imagine the steering wheel will be made out ?

I have seen some really interesting polymers that transmit LED light beautifully and are soft to touch.

WMN: Why do you think your invention is a good idea?

The SteerClear Wheel’s communication with the driver is simple, intuitive and easy. Like iPhones, even Grandma can understand that red means stop and a pulse clockwise means turn right. Many people are having trouble understanding Advanced Driver Assistance Systems  because they're new therefore we have to make it like our own human nature.

I also am concerned about the reliance of ADAS warning features through sound. Often the sounds for ADAS features are annoying and people shut them. Also, people have different reactions to sounds. When I hear alarm I tense up. If I get a little vibration to tell me to turn in the direction it's much easier. Additionally, people with hearing loss don't appreciate it or when other people in the car hear the warning and they don’t notice it. It can be embarrassing.

Some automakers have put warnings in brake pedal. However, shoes can have thick soles and platform shoes and thick sneakers are popular reducing the feeling in feet. Our hands are the most sensitive and easiest to reach when we want to communicate something.

WMN: Why is it called the Steer Clear Wheel?

When I tell people the name of the SteerClear Wheel, they get, the steering wheel has a clear element and the phrase “steer clear” because it is common term that means “take care to avoid or keep away from.” We are trying to avoid accidents, lane departures and rear collisions.

The SteerClear Wheel has front driver-facing clear material because all the information that is necessary can be seen in the front of the wheel.

WMN: What did your research show about the need for the SteerClear Wheel?

I was surprised to see how many Boomers had hearing loss as much as 50% have some form of hearing loss. As we age, hearing problems worsen to the point that over age 75 as much 50% have some disabling hearing loss

Short people who have trouble seeing over the steering wheel are close to 50% of the female population in the United States

Two different studies show that drivers turn off their ADAS features.  In fact, IIHS found that people shut off driver-assistance features because they find the sound and the way too annoying

When I go to trade shows and see what the future of in-dash systems, it appear they're getting more and more complicated to the point it's like there's an entire movie screen in the car. I find huge screens very distracting and on top of that, we have high numbers of people who require vision correction.

As you get older you may need glasses for near far and even medium distance. It’s pretty near impossible for me to drive with trifocals. I think it's important to have a form of communication that is very simple such as you feel a vibration or see lights.

I have a touchscreen in the center of my car. I don't look at it while I'm driving. I have to look under my driving glasses and it's kind of fuzzy. It's also not a good idea to put detailed information an arm's length away from someone whose arm is already short

WMN: You are the editor of a publication that covers connected cars isn't that a conflict of interest?

No, because I wouldn't have come up with the idea without me reading hundreds of articles a day about the field of connected cars. As a journalist and editor I get to see an overview of the industry that people within the industry may not be able to see clearly (no pun intended.) For example, when I was writing for Investor’s Business Daily I would interview three analysts on the same topic and each analyst didn't know what the other analyst was saying. I was able to take all the information and put it together in a way that was really helpful to readers and investors. I also have started several successful technology businesses.

 WMN: What has your research shown about competitors?

I have done extensive research in the field, there are no competing products There is nothing else like this on the market. Which is why in May, I filed with the U.S. Patent Office.

WMN: What other unique uses will the Steer Clear Wheel have?

As we become closer to creating autonomous vehicles we also need a methodology to alert the human driver when to take over. If someone is distracted or listening to music it is difficult to reach them.  If an entire steering wheel turns green as a whole and it is right in front of you--- it is clear what the driver needs to do – go back to driving.

It can also work with smart city infrastructure and other advances safety features such as parking assistance.

WMN: What did you wish people knew about the SteerClear Wheel?

I think it's really important that people realize that we need something simple to communicate to drivers their safety features such as when to turn. It is also an added value for navigation systems in cars when you know you have to make a left or a right turn because your steering wheel is telling you.

You're not looking at a map or listening to turn right in 800 feet. It's very easy and it doesn't take rocket science to know how to use. In many new cars the manuals are hundreds of pages long. To figure out how to even just set the radio station can cause enough anxiety for you to never want to listen to the radio again

I think it's also important for me that I have been in the journalism and marketing industry for many years and marketing will be an important part of this product. The concept and the name work together so people know exactly what it does and it does it well

WMN: What's the deal with the security feature?

The fingerprint sensor is on the back of the wheel where your finger naturally rests while you're driving. This is for a few reasons mainly because I have trouble reaching for the button for the button start. Also why make another hand movement when you don't have to?

WMN: What is the adjustment wheel for?

Not everybody likes a strong vibration so we have an adjustment for people who are ultra sensitive to lower the vibration

WMN: And you've got an accelerometer and gyroscope too. What do they do?

That is to make sure we know the position of the wheel at all times. Steering wheel movement/position data can be used to call first responders or other OnStar-like features to get help if something goes wrong

Currently, telematics call systems wait until airbags deploy to call for help. Once the airbag deploys, we know the vehicle is in major trouble. If the steering wheel is wobbling and spinning uncontrollably that could save time to get help to the person faster.

Say for example someone passes out, has a heart attack or loses control of the wheel while driving. A help center rep can call the driver and if there is no response send help before airbags deploy.

WMN: How big is the SteerClear Wheel?

It will depend on the type of vehicle in which it is deployed for example in a compact car the average size of a steering wheel is between 13 and 14 inches and designers. We will be able to configure the size to meet the needs of the automotive designers

WMN: Will it get muddy and yucky? What about texture and grip?

There are coatings that prevent smudges from hand oil that will allow it to be seen clearly. There are many materials that have a good texture and grip and that are clear and easy to deploy.

WMN: What’s next?

We have to wait to confirm with USPTO our filing before we launch the website and Twitter account.

Update: 7/27/2016: We have been contacted by the PR rep from SteerClear Wheel the website is up. The Twitter account is @SteerClearWheel.