Motorists who control cars with their minds drive more safely

According to data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, August is the most dangerous month of the year to be a U.S. motorist. But here's some promising news for the future: researchers have created a device that allows people to control their brakes just by thinking about it. In The Journal of Neural Engineering, scientists offer evidence that "mind-reading" technologies can help you slam on the brakes at the speed of thought, and avoid accidents.

German researchers at the Berlin Institute of Technology have developed a mind-reading system that can use electrical signals from a driver's brain to apply a vehicle's brakes over a tenth of a second before he or she moves to physically depress the brake pedal. While it might not seem like much, the time saved by an assistance technology that causes your car to begin decelerating the moment you think about slamming on the brakes could mean the difference between a close call and a devastating collision. Consider, for example, that when driving at a speed of 100 km/hour (~62mph), an improved brake pedal reaction time of 130 milliseconds would reduce the braking distance by almost 4 meters. That's an entire car length.

To the left is a video of the driving simulator that the researchers used to demonstrate the viability of their mind-reading setup. According to Dr. Stefan Haufe, the lead author of the study, the secret to the system is EEG (electroencephalography), which the researchers used to first pinpoint the parts of the brain most electrically active in an emergency-braking scenario, and then to respond to signals from those regions as accurately as possible. In the video, you can see the test subject wearing an EEG cap that allows the braking system to monitor his brain waves and help him decelerate more quickly than he could on his own.

The research represents the first time that EEG readings have been used to assist in braking, and the researchers intend to conduct road trials of their mind-reading system in the near future. While aspects of the system remain prohibitive (drivers need to wear an EEG cap, which is uncomfortable and difficult to fit correctly), this research demonstrates the life-saving potential of predictive brain activity, and provides us with a promising glimpse at the future of vehicular safety.

Read the full scientific paper via The Journal of Neural Engineering