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Royal College of Art Researchers Have Successfully Created a Soft Robotic Steering Wheel

Free public display open Friday 13 April (4–6pm), Saturday 14 – Sunday 15 April (10am – 6pm)
Hockney Gallery, Royal College of Art, Kensington, London, SW7 2EU

A team of RCA MRes Design researchers and designers have created a prototype to help improve the wellbeing of Gig economy drivers – in particular Uber drivers. Their solution is a soft robotic steering wheel that is one of the first tangible objects to emerge from the new RCA Robotics lab.

From 13 April – 15 April, members of the public are invited to try-out the working prototype of the new soft robotic steering wheel at an exhibition at the RCA in Kensington. As well as ‘driving’ using the steering wheel on a simulated road, visitors can look behind the scenes and explore the material experiments and variety of sensors that went into developing the final prototype. Visitors are also invited to give their thoughts on the future of the steering wheel, especially within a future context when autonomous cars may no longer have steering wheels or, indeed, ‘drivers’.
As technology is directing the future of work, RCA designers used Uber as a case study. In the UK, there are 3.5 million Uber users and 40, 000 drivers. Through quantitative research RCA designers found that Uber drivers’ mental health can often suffer due to isolated working and the high levels of concentration required with long hours of driving and navigating with the Uber interface. These concerns could also be applied to legions of commercial drivers internationally.
To address the mental strain described by Uber drivers, RCA designers created a soft robotic steering wheel that acts as a tactile navigation system. The ‘steering wheel’ itself is a soft robotic textile and inflatable silicon surface that is easily attached to an existing steering wheel. It is connected to the Uber navigation system and sends signals to the steering wheel via a variety of sensors. The surface of the steering wheel expands to the right or left hand side before a turn and deflates after the turn, so the driver can safely navigate without looking at the GPS interface and therefore stay focused on the road. Whilst this prototype has been developed with Uber drivers in mind, it has applications that could benefit many drivers by making dashboard navigation safer.
Through the research process, designers found that soft robotics have the advantage over other forms of robotics as they are pleasant to touch and therefore good for interacting with humans. This steering wheel is the most recent human-robot collaboration to emerge from the RCA’s robotic lab and follows a host of ground-breaking projects including: Dani Clode’s Third Thumb (Design Products, 2017), life-saving ‘Ellys’ to help save lives on the Thames designed as part of the LRF Grand Challenge (RCA MRes research, 2017), and and an octopus-inspired soft artificial sucker that acts as a robotic anchoring module (Sina Sareh, RCA Robotic Leader, 2017).
This project informs wider research concerns relating to transhumanism, (innovations that allow humans to over-come their natural limitations). Throughout the design process, the designers have examined how people and technology can best work together in the future. In the long-term, students are considering how machines can actually help drivers by giving them power against technology, and the design of steering wheels is a good starting point as it facilitates collaboration between humans and machines.

For further information or images please contact Bethany Bull, RCA Press Office on t: +44 (0) 20 7590 4114, e: [email protected] /  [email protected]  

Notes to Editors
About the Royal College of Art
Engaging in teaching and research, the Royal College of Art offers the degrees of MA, MRes, MPhil and PhD across the disciplines of applied art, architecture, fine art, design, communications and humanities.
It offers 28 highly specialised programmes in Art & Design to over 2,000 Master’s and doctoral students and more than 800 professionals interacting with them – including researchers, art and design practitioners, along with advisers and distinguished visitors.