First we got automatic braking systems, which did the brake pumping for the driver in a sudden stop. Then we got airbags, which protected our noggins and knees from whacking into the windshield and dashboard in a crash. Safety systems eventually got even crazier, with sensors and alerts and cameras and beeps and blinks. Modern cars have more warning lights than an Apollo space capsule.
You're already using your eyes to scan the street for traffic and your ears to listen for other cars, fire trucks and city buses. Your hands are busy steering the car and your feet are making it stop and go. What body part aren't you using? What part of you could still possibly take in new information? What part of you could somehow warn you of impending danger?
How about your rear end? That's right, we're talking about your butt.
The following three 2013 Cadillac models will have a new safety feature called the Safety Alert Seat for the driver: the XTS sedan, ATS sedan and the SRX crossover. While your eyes and ears and hands and feet are piloting the car, your lazy butt, which until now had bupkes to do in the car, is going to tell you when you're about to do something stupid. Stay with us here ... this makes way more sense than you probably think.
Wiggle It Just a Little Bit
Cadillac's Safety Alert Seat has two small motors in the driver's seat, one on the right side and one on the left side. Both are toward the back of the seat. These motors are connected to Cadillac's electronic safety systems, and when a problem is detected, one or both motors vibrate.
When Ray Keifer, General Motors active safety technical fellow and the inventor of this seat, was asked where the driver would feel these vibrations, he quite diplomatically replied, "the upper thigh." Not that a playground full of third-graders is a better judge of human anatomy than a scientist, but pretty much everyone is going to agree with the kids that what we're talking about here is the butt. You're going to feel it on your butt.
Speaking of science, what the seat actually uses is called haptic feedback. Keifer explained that there are lots of ways to get information to our brains, like our senses of sight, smell, and hearing. "Haptic" is related to our sense of touch. "It's also used to describe kinetic sensations; it could be the whole vehicle jerking," said Keifer. "Any type of vibration is a haptic alert."
The vibrations signal the driver that something is going wrong, or more likely, is about to go wrong if he or she doesn't change something soon. Take the Cadillac lane departure warning feature, for instance. "If you're drifting in your lane without using the turn signal, it triggers the lane departure warning," said Keifer. "The driver feels three quick pulses on the left side of the seat. It's similar to a rumble strip feeling, very intuitive."
See? It makes way more sense than you thought, right?
Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture
Besides the rumble strip simulation for lane departure, the Safety Alert Seat works with the front and rear park assist sensors, the rear cross-traffic alert and a new backing warning feature for when you're backing up at higher speeds. The car will not only shake your rump to tell you to watch out behind you, it'll apply the brakes for you if you're not quick enough on the pedal.
You may have seen the commercial for the cross-traffic alert, where someone is backing out of a parking space with huge SUVs on either side. The driver can't see a thing, but the Cadillac has radar looking up and down the aisle. If it picks up another vehicle on the right, the right side of the seat vibrates. It also puts the information in the center console, just in case your butt isn't smart enough to pick up on the haptic warning. (Haptic! It's the word of the day!)
What would possess a man to design a system to shake the rumps of Cadillac owners while they drive? Keifer said he was inspired by the tactile warnings used by the visual and hearing impaired. "Some of our drivers are hearing impaired, or beeps can't be heard because of background noise," he said. "In the course of my research, I became aware that some companies were using vibration for navigation purposes to signal left vs. right. The idea came to me to use it for alerting the driver to potential crashes."
Having a nearly silent alert serves another purpose, too: Most people turn off safety systems when they get annoying. If you've ever driven a car with a park assist system, you know that the beeping inside the car can get a bit shrill. You may find yourself screaming, "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" at the poor car, which is really just trying to help you. A quick, quiet vibration is less likely to bug you, according to Keifer.
"It also provides privacy benefits," said Keifer. "Do the passengers in the car really need to know every time you drift out of the lane?" No, they do not. Nor do they need to comment on one's challenges with parallel parking. "Things like lane departure and park assist beeps happen daily," Keifer added. "Annoyance is a big deal. We want to keep people from turning the safety systems off."
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Author's Note: How the Cadillac Safety Alert Seat Works
At first, when I read about this seat, I thought it was gimmicky and silly, to be honest. Is a vibrating seat going to keep you from crashing? Or will it make you crash because you're all, "Why is my butt tingling?"
But I realized the value of haptic feedback when Ray Keifer mentioned that people find blinking and beeping alerts so annoying that they turn the whole dang system off. As an automotive journalist, I've driven dozens of brand-new cars with every literal bell and whistle turned on and going full blast. It's annoying like you would not believe.
I have a rosemary bush next to my driveway. It grows faster than the dandelions in the lawn. Every test car I drive these days has sensors for backing up, and every time I get near that rosemary bush, the sensors go into high alert. "Beep! Beep! Beep! Holy crap! There is something very near my fender! We're all going to die! Die, I tell you! Beeeeep!" Every time I leave the driveway.
If I owned any of those cars, I would also turn off the safety systems. Now, do I really want a daily vibration of my left butt cheek as I leave my driveway? Maybe ...
- GM News. "Cadillac Safety Seat Alerts Drivers to Dangers." Press release. March 27, 2012. (Oct. 2, 2012) http://media.gm.com/media/us/en/gm/news.detail.html/content/Pages/news/us/en/2012/Mar/0327_cadillac_safety.html
- Keifer, Ray. General Motors Active Safety Technical Fellow. Telephone interview conducted on Oct. 9, 2012.