The age of the thoughtful driver

The Engineer

A couple of weeks ago, we reported on the rise of the driverless vehicle, a technology that’s closer to becoming a reality than many of us would perhaps imagine.

It’s a prospect that clearly divides opinion among Engineer readers: while some of you excitedly considered the benefits the technology might bring, others threw up a host of objections, not least a fear that removing human drivers from the loop will make driving more dangerous, not safer, as those developing such systems claim.

However, a story featured in The Engineer this week  – which looks at improvements to electroencephalography (EEG) systems that could be used to study drivers’ brainwaves – raises the prospect of an entirely different approach to automotive control based on a direct interface between the vehicle and the driver’s brain. 

It sounds incredibly far fetched – far more so than autonomous vehicles – but there are already many examples of technologies that can be controlled by thought alone.

Some of the biggest advances have been made in the world of prosthetics, where artificial limbs that can be controlled by a user’s brain signals have been around for several years. Mind-controlled computers have also been used to help sufferers of locked-in syndrome, a condition in which people with normal brain function suffer complete paralysis.

A number of firms also now produce devices for the gaming industry which measure the brain’s electrical impulses and can be used by to control characters on a screen.

Even more  intriguingly, back in 2011 a German team from the Freie Universitat Berlin, demonstrated a modified brain-machine gaming interface on a VW Passat. Consisting of 16 EEG sensors, the so-called BrainDriver system enabled a driver to control steering, acceleration and braking using thoughts alone. So perhaps the mind-controlled vehicle isn’t such a huge leap after all?

Such a system certainly has some compelling potential advantages. Without the complications of pedals, steering wheels and gears, drivers could react to traffic conditions far more quickly.

What’s more, with the vehicle’s control system effectively hot-wired to the driver’s brain, the car would be far better-equipped to judge when to take complete control of the vehicle.

So could this be the future of automotive control? A car that blends human and artificial intelligence; a car that’s neither fully-autonomous, nor completely dependent on a  human driver; a Cybercar if you will.