Thinking Tech

SMARTwheel invention may prevent distracted driving

Posting in Design

A group of innovative kids have developed an intriguing safety device that has gotten them props from President Barack Obama.

A new technology for cars may someday prevent accidents by helping drivers do what they should always be doing: paying attention to the road.

The SMARTwheel, a steering wheel cover invented by six whiz kids from Londonderry, N.H., who call themselves the Inventioneers, was awarded the champion's award at the First Lego League robotics competition. But what's perhaps more impressive is that the invention has recently earned them recognition from the Obama administration's Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood as well as props from the President himself.

The device uses embedded sensors to detect whether you're engaging in a potentially dangerous activity like texting or eating.  Whenever a driver uses an unsafe grip or takes a hand off the steering wheel for more than three seconds, an escalating buzzer and an array of red, yellow and green flashing lights would go off as a way of nudging the person back into safe driving position.

The SMARTwheel, which stands for Safe Motorist Alert for Restricting Texting, differentiate between safe and precarious driving habits by continuously monitoring and tracking the location and movement of the driver's hands. The information is then downloaded and sent to the car’s telenetics system.

To demonstrate that their invention was more than a glorified science fair project, the team tested out it out in a vehicle simulator at M.I.T.’s AgeLab. The results showed that the SMARTwheel positively changed driving behavior in 90 percent of the participants.

Even so, it's the reaction from the nation's leaders that's probably been the most encouraging part of the process. A post in the New York Times Wheels blog describes the team's experience in Washington D.C.:

Earlier this month, the group visited with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who wrote about it on his Fast Lane blog. “As I tested out the SMARTwheel during the team’s visit, I was impressed by how much thought and technical skill the team put into their design.”

The children recounted how, when Mr. Obama stopped by their booth at the White House Science Fair last October, he quipped that he wouldn’t be able to eat a hamburger while driving. But he also said that when his daughters get ready to drive, he wants one for them.

The Inventioneers, whose members range between 10 to 16 years of age, have just finished working on an 8th prototype and are looking for a manufacturer to help them get the device out into the market.

“We made a list of all the different people we wanted to contact, to help us bring SMARTWheel to fruition, we look back on that list now, and say we’ve met everyone there,” 15 year-old TJ Evarts told a local Fox News affiliate in Boston. “It’s amazing that kids like us have actually reached that high a goal.”

Local teens' invention aimed at distracted driving: MyFoxBOSTON.com

Photo: Department of Transportation

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure