Chinese Researchers Develop Mind-Controlled Car

December 22, 2015 | Elizabeth Knowles

photograph of a man in the driver's seat of a car wearing an elaborate headset.
Photo credit: Autonomos Labs

Just think about it.

You’ve probably heard about futuristic self-driving cars, but what about mind-controlled cars? That sounds insane, right? Well, scientists in China disagree.

A team of researchers from Nankai University recently unveiled plans for a new car that will be controlled using human thoughts. “Drivers” will have to wear special mind-reading headgear and 16 sensors will harvest electroencephalogram (EEG) signals to direct the car through a computer.

The project started two years ago and was originally intended to give disabled drivers a way to get around. However, the researchers are now talking about providing this technology to anybody and everybody.

You might be wondering what the purpose of a thought-driven car is when it seems like we’ll be using self-driving cars any day now. Why should we have to do the thinking if a car can drive itself? The researchers see them not as competitors, but as complementary technologies. "In the end, cars, whether driverless or not, and machines are serving for people. Under such circumstances, people's intentions must be recognized. In our project, it makes the cars better serve human beings," lead researcher, Duan Feng, told Reuters.

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If you’re worried about distracted drivers causing accidents with this type of vehicle, Duan says that you don’t need to be. “Drivers” would only need to concentrate when changing the car’s behavior — when turning or changing lanes, for example. Daydreaming at any other time would not cause the car to behave erratically.

If the whole idea terrifies you, don’t panic yet — there aren’t any current plans to put the car into production. As of now, it can only drive in one direction and researchers haven’t created a mechanism for turning the car, so there’s still much research to be done! On the other hand, maybe we’ll get some neat sci-fi movies out of the concept!

The Chinese aren’t the only ones in the game. A team at the Free University of Berlin is working on a very similar technology, a car they call the “Brain Driver.” They are finding humans to be the complicated part of the equation.

Training someone to think the right thoughts that in turn pass on a correct signal to the car isn’t easy. “It’s as if we were putting a small microphone on one side and trying to hear one of a million people shouting on the other side,” says Adalberto Llarena, a roboticist with the Brain Driver project, when talking about the headset to the BBC. His team is trying to halve the number of required EEG sensors to simplify the whole experience.

Henrik Matzke, another member of the team, is the most naturally gifted driver in the group, but even he is far from confident in his mind-driving abilities. “I got confident to about 70%,” he said, “but you can’t get into a car and say, 'I’m 70% confident'.” He has practiced enough to direct a car through a training course. However, their car isn’t approved for real roads yet either.

Read this next: 10 Science Breakthroughs That Will Change the World

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