As regular readers of this blog know, I do enjoy learning about and talking about new technologies that seek to enhance the driver-to-vehicle interface and, thus, make cars and insureds that much safer.
The latest news, as reported in New Scientist, is about an alleged mind-reading device that taps into a driver's brain to recognize and act on the brain signals to stop the car precious milliseconds before the signals become leg movements.
As noted in the report, a number of current vehicles (Mercedes, for example) carry systems to detect traffic danger, and will then stop the vehicle the moment the driver touches the brake. According to researchers at the Berlin Institute of Technology in Germany, however, the new device goes a step farther by plugging into the driver's thoughts to make braking response times even faster.
The researchers wired 18 volunteers to an EEG headset, a non-invasive way to measure brain activity, and asked them to drive at 100 kilometers per hour (about 62 miles per hour) in a car simulator, closely following the car in front. The EEG measured patterns of brain activity as drivers were forced to brake suddenly. It recorded three distinct patterns, which the team were able to use to detect the intention to brake before the driver moved, said New Scientist.
The system reliably triggered the braking system 130 milliseconds sooner than waiting for the driver to touch the pedal. At 100 km/h, says the report, that reduces the stopping distance by the length of a small car—potentially enough to prevent an accident. It’s hard to argue that even such a small change might not be a potential lifesaver, but let’s consider some of the practicalities here.
The drivers in the study wore headgear that looked like something out of a grade B brain transplant horror movie. It seems unlikely at best that most motorists will opt for this admittedly different fashion statement. In addition, as the report points out, subjects in the study already knew they had to be alert and brake suddenly. Most of us, thank Heaven, are not so hyper-alert every minute behind the wheel.
Another problem is the rather presumptuous assumption that everyone’s brain will “look” the same to the monitoring device, or that the human brain functions like a computer. In fact, our brains are much more complex than computers, which is why—science fiction aside—we don’t have any independently-thinking computers.
Let’s suppose a driver has already been in a very serious accident where he has been forced to suddenly brake and later experienced traumatic injuries. Let’s also suppose that leaves him with post-traumatic stress disorder, which, among other things, has him reliving the experience over and over. Can you imagine putting this individual behind the wheel with such a monitoring system, knowing that every mental replay could trigger a sudden, violent application of the brakes?
Even for someone not so unfortunate, a stray thought about perhaps having to brake for that wildly careening vehicle ahead could cause an unwanted result. The difference between imagining a sudden application of brakes and intending to apply them is obvious to us, but perhaps not so obvious to a machine that reads brain waves.
Insurers would no doubt love to have such systems in place in the vehicles they cover, but I wouldn’t count on seeing them any time soon.
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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