Use the Force… to Drive Your Car

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 7/29/2011 | 30 comments

David Wagner
Welcome to the Geekend! At E2, we often cover technology that breaches your privacy, but what about a product that literally reads your mind? Sounds exciting and a bit frightening, right? How about a product that drives your car for you?

We’ve seen computer-assisted cars that drive themselves using sensors, but now researchers are using electroencephalography (EEG) to literally read the thoughts and intentions of drivers. The researchers have been able to shorten braking time by 13 hundreths of a second, which amounts to about 10 feet when driving 60 miles per hour -- a potentially lifesaving distance.

EEG is a growing field with the potential to change all aspects of our lives. Paralyzed patients have been able to use the technology to manipulate computers, wheelchairs, and even artificial limbs. Sensors are placed on the scalp to read surface signals from the brain. The sensors isolate the intention impulse created to move your muscles and make other cognitive decisions. The potential is only beginning to be tapped, and researchers have high hopes for using this technique in every aspect of life.

In a way, helping the paralyzed manipulate a wheelchair is easier than helping with reactive braking in the car. The wheelchair is a closed environment with no real time factor. Patients can focus their full concentration on moving. Drivers must watch multiple environmental factors, and any lag in response can prove deadly. So, despite the more heartwarming aspect of the medical advances, the advances in driving demonstrate more potential for the technology.

There are a couple of significant problems with the driving right now. The first is the fear of malfunction. Though malfunction rates are small, if a car suddenly stopped when a driver didn't want to, the consequences could be dire.

A simpler but perhaps more difficult issue is that you have to slick back your hair with conductive gel to help the sensors pick up the signal. Then you put on a skullcap with dozens of sensors. To top it all off, if you jerk your head too quickly, you’ll disrupt the signal. In a real-world driving situation, keeping your head very still isn't easy, especially in a potential accident situation. And some people are not going to be thrilled about going into work with a bunch of gel in their hair. Considering the number of people who shave or apply makeup while driving, I suspect vanity will play a huge part in slowing adoption of this technology.

Still, there is some hope. Toy companies have used this technology in recent years to create games that let people manipulate objects with their minds. These games use headsets that are a little more tolerable to many and have a “cool factor.” The headsets don’t have the capabilities of the medical-grade skullcaps, but hopefully advances can be made.

For a look at this in action, check this out:

In an interview, the developer said the technology required to make this toy originally cost $5,000 but has come down to about $200. The headsets also can be used with the gel, but they are less sophisticated and can’t control devices to the same extent as the more advanced technology. However, it is a sign that the technology is getting cheaper and easier to use.

What do you think? Are you ready to use the Force to drive your car? Is 10 feet of braking worth the slicked back hairdo? Personally, I'd risk looking like Gordon Gekko if I could drive to work hands free.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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batye   Use the Force… to Drive Your Car   8/2/2011 1:41:04 AM
Re: Scary thought


just an idea you could drive your car remotely using your cellphone attached to the "Force control device"
but would you want to be a passenger in this car...

maybe 10-15 years from now - we could see this technology widely adopted by car manufacturers...


jimmywai   Use the Force… to Drive Your Car   8/1/2011 11:51:10 PM
Scary thought
What if someone hacks into your car and drive it for you? Scary thought!
CurtisFranklin   Use the Force… to Drive Your Car   8/1/2011 4:01:45 PM
Re: Yes, yes and YES!
@CMTucker I have seen those programs, and I love them. I agree that it's wonderful to see the Detroit automakers embracing new technology. While I love playing with some of the "classic" auto technology, the fact is that the high-tech modern cars are better in just about every way than the classics. If they had a box that made my Prius sound like a '72 Chevelle SS with the 454, then I'd say we were close to personal transportation Nirvana!
David Wagner   Use the Force… to Drive Your Car   8/1/2011 12:00:06 PM
Re: Mind-body coordination Interestingly enough, the brain has different types of thoughts you can zero in on. The desire to honk at the person looking at her iPhone is a different thought than the one that tells your hand to move to the horn and push it. The systems we're talking about read your intention to move your muscles and react to that.

Essentially, the time saved in the braking scenario is that instead of waiting for delay for the single to reach your foot, then have your foot press the break, and then have the mechanics of your brake activate, the brake activates without the intervening step of the foot moving and pressing the mechanical part of the brake. It can't anticipate whether you are thinking about braking.

That said, it does occasionally get it wrong. This is partially due to the sensors not being sensitive enough and also times where the impulse to brake comes quickly and another decision is made instead (like swerving). Before it works in that situation, you need to overcome scenarios similar to what you describe.
SaneIT   Use the Force… to Drive Your Car   8/1/2011 10:12:41 AM
Re: Yes, yes and YES!
I believe that Google has received permission to turn autonomous cars loose in New Mexico or Nevada, the demo of one of their cars driving itself on the top of a parking structure is pretty cool but it begs the question of what happens when the car meets construction, or a bad map or bad GPS signal.  Does the system have a fall back method of determining it's postion? Humans can roll down the window and hope for good information, can the cars speak wifi to get their bearings?   Use the Force… to Drive Your Car   7/31/2011 10:01:09 PM
Re: Interrogating suspects
@Taimoor: Spielberg did think about this.. way back in 2002 (Minority Report). Criminals are caught before they can actually act out the crimes they are thinking...

The challenge is technology, even advanced technology is yet to fathom the intricacies of the human mind. I am with David on this one - a lie detector test is not enough to lock away a person - and for good reason. While it may prove effective to lock away people who deserve being in prison, there are chances, lie detection, and similar technology will also push a few innocent people to an undeserved fate; and thus trial by a jury of peers.

One can argue, is a jury always right then? But that discussion falls outside the technology realm...

User Ranking: Blogger   Use the Force… to Drive Your Car   7/31/2011 9:54:15 PM
Mind-body coordination
This is a very interesting read, David.

Question. What if I want to honk at the girl at the Stop sign who is taking her own sweet time to cross the street, hands and eyes glued to the phone infront of her, as she texts away oblivious to waiting cars? I don't. I just put it off as a minor inconvenience, and wait.

With a mind-reading device, which will have no ethical or moral compass or plain politeness as part of its machinery, can it figure out inherently what I want to do is not always what I want to do?
User Ranking: Blogger
Skr2011   Use the Force… to Drive Your Car   7/31/2011 9:12:36 PM
Re: Fore!

What is a good game of golf without the torture, humiliation, and self-flaggelation that comes with slicing 18 tee shots into the trees?

LOL that is funny! I have to agree having an EEG system to help you golf would be (in my book) cheating. What kind of satisfaction would you get out of navigating an 18 hole golf course with a EEG shooting a what...40 okay 35 but no errors, no shots go in the water or sand traps. What kind of fun is that?

LuFu   Use the Force… to Drive Your Car   7/31/2011 12:42:33 PM
Re: Fore!
This is true, that's why there's a bar on the 19th hole. The cost savings in lost balls would be tremendous!
JPoe   Use the Force… to Drive Your Car   7/31/2011 11:52:51 AM
Re: A practical application
I wonder what it would look like to have some really smart, capable system that provides for 'traffic mode' assistance. I can see using that on a regular basis. On the other hand, the potential for problems, Insurance nightmares and related hassles makes is a non-starter.
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