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Drivers put the brakes on with thought alone

German researchers devise and test a system that reads brain activity to detect drivers' intent to hit the brakes. They say it leads to faster braking times and could help prevent collisions.

Seated in a drivingsim in front of a wide screen composed of three 19-inch monitors, study participants drove a virtual racing car behind another vehicle. Journal of Neural Engineering

German scientists are revving up a system that harnesses mind power to brake cars.

The setup involves attaching electrodes to the scalp to measure a driver's brain patterns and detect the intent to brake in an emergency situation. Researchers from the Berlin Institute of Technology say test drivers were able to stop 130 milliseconds faster via thought control than via the regular old brake pedal response--and shave a distance the length of a small car off their stopping span when moving at about 62 miles per hour.

These time and distance differentials--detailed in the Institute of Physics' Journal of Neural Engineering last week--are sufficient enough to potentially help drivers avoid an accident, the researchers say. Their goal is to build an even faster, more efficient collision system than those already in place.

The team identified parts of the brain that are most active just before a driver slams the brakes (medically known as the "Oh my god, I think I'm about to crash" parts). They then tweaked the mind-reading device to respond to the brain activity by pressing the brakes. Volunteers tested the system using a driving simulator that had them maneuvering a virtual race car behind another virtual vehicle using a customized version of the open-source racing software TORCS. The setting included oncoming traffic, and the participants didn't have the chance to avoid a potential accident by switching to another lane.

News of the "neuroergonomic" braking system comes on the heels (wheels?) of a concept mind-controlled bike that uses electrodes in the rider's helmet to pick up neuro-electrical activity and signals from the helmet are transmitted to an electronic gear shifter mounted under the seat. Are we moving toward a world of mind-controlled transportation?

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Given how distracted people can get on the road, we can't help but shudder at the thought. But we find our wandering minds somewhat eased by the words of Stefan Haufe, a lead author of the study on mind-controlled car braking.

"We are now considering [testing] the system online in a real car," he said in a statement. "However, if such a technology would ever enter a commercial product, it would certainly be used to complement other assistive technology to avoid the consequences of false alarms that could be both annoying and dangerous."

If the German researchers manage to work out the false-alarm issue--and get their EEG cap looking a bit more fashionable for the average commuter--they could be looking at a hot market. A recent study by ABI Research found that as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) become more prevalent in the vehicle industry, their market value will grow at an exponential rate.

ADAS offer functions such as adaptive cruise control that speeds or slows a car based on road conditions; warnings when a vehicle starts to drift into another lane; and low-speed collision mitigation. ADAS are becoming both higher performing and easier to produce, which is helping to bring them to more cars.