You’ve no doubt heard something of Google’s experiments with autonomous cars, as well as artificial intelligence vehicles that can transport the blind. Automotive technology is evolving quickly, but here’s something you’ll have to wait a bit longer for: a brain-controlled car. German researchers debuted a prototype electroencephalography control unit called BrainDriver last year, made entirely of off-the-shelf parts. It hasn’t caught on yet, but futurists like me can dream.
BrainDriver on the road: A hybrid of human and machine
Initially designed for gaming, BrainDriver’s electroencephalography unit was tested in the process of controlling an autonomous Volkswagen Passat. Only rudimentary driving commands could be sent through the hands- and feet-free system, but that in itself is major progress in the history of automotive technology.
“The whole thing was not done as a real application for today, but as a ‘technology push,’ as a proof of concept of what technology can already achieve,” said Dr. Raul Rojas of the Free University of Berlin, Germany. “An intriguing question is how to ‘hybridize’ human and machine, and it was fun to try this with our car.”
Pushing the envelope of not moving a muscle
Let’s not get too excited yet. Completely autonomous cars powered by artificial intelligence, or even a brain-controlled car, is a long way off. But such modern automotive extras as adaptive cruise control are leaving a great deal of room for futuristic development. Rojas’ team has participated in other projects that have furthered the dialogue, such as EyeDriver, where a vehicle is controlled by eye movements.
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BrainDriver is a different kind of animal, however. Sixteen electroencephalography headset sensors send the human driver’s brain signals to an in-car computer, where these are translated into directions for turning, accelerating and coming to a stop. The car takes care of these functions without physical input from the human driver.
“Of course this is somewhat slow for real driving. since the interpretation-integration of commands takes some time, and therefore you need a big open space to test,” Rojas said.
But are you BCI literate?
Unfortunately, not all people will be able to use an electroencephalography system right out of the box. Rojas calls this “BCI Illiteracy,” and it is quite common. In order to clearly transmit signals via an EEG sensor, practice is required.
“(We) want to find out why some people are BCI-illiterate and others aren’t,” Rojas said. “Since our main goal is that the car drives itself, and we just give commands now and then, probably speech recognition is a better choice… But BCI is fascinating, and I cannot really foresee now where all this is going.”
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