“I think therefore I am,” wrote the mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes. But Chinese researchers might soon change that to, “I think therefore I drive.”
Working out of Nankai University, in the port city of Tianjin, they are developing a car that can be driven simply by using brain power. The car decides what to do by using 16 electroencephalogram, or EEG, sensors to read what a driver is thinking.
“The tester’s EEG signals are … transmitted wirelessly to the computer,” researcher Zhang Zhao told the Reuters news service. “The computer processes the signals to categorize and recognize people’s intention, then translates them into control command to the car.”
At the moment, the system can be used to control a handful of vehicle operations, allowing the car to go into drive or reverse, stop, and lock or unlock the doors. But the goal is to be able to have it eventually operate a variety of other functions, such as changing lanes.
One challenge would be to make sure the system doesn’t drive off the road when a motorist were to get momentarily distracted, whether to change a radio station, to read a billboard or to deal with noisy children misbehaving in the back seat.
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According to Nankai University Associate Professor Duan Feng, that wouldn’t be a problem. The system would not be used in a conventional vehicle to replace steering wheel and pedals, but would best be paired with an autonomous vehicle, so a driver would only need to maintain concentration when changing the vehicle’s status, perhaps to switch lanes.
Duan said the system could be used to give a driver more control over something like the autonomous vehicles that Google is developing. The tech company’s newest prototypes still have conventional controls but Google eventually plans to test some that are completely driverless.
“Driverless cars’ further development can bring more benefits to us, since we can better realize functions relating to brain controlling with the help of the driverless cars’ platform,” Duan told the wire service. “In our project, it makes the cars better serve human beings.”
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In its current form, the person controlling a vehicle must attach 16 electrode to the scalp for the system to read their thoughts. One of the challenges would be to come up with a more efficient way to pick up brain waves, whether by putting on a cap or even doing it without wires and electrodes at all.
Researchers have already found ways for cars to read the human mind, albeit in more limited form. A number of new vehicles, including the 2016 BMW 750i, can use various cues, such as eye or hand movements to detect when a motorist is growing tired. That can trigger a warning to pull over and rest. The new BMW 7-Series also has the ability to read a limited number of hand gestures to do things like answer a phone call or adjust the radio volume.
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The Nankai researchers currently say they have no clear plans to put their mind-control system into production. But they are working with the Chinese auto manufacturer Great Wall on the project.