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Scientists steer car with thoughts

Feb. 21, 2011
Courtesy of Free University Berlin
and World Science staff

You’d bet­ter not let your thoughts wan­der if you drive us­ing a new tech­nol­o­gy from the Free Uni­vers­ity of Ber­lin. Com­put­er sci­en­tists there have de­vel­oped a sys­tem to let peo­ple steer a car with their thoughts.

Us­ing new, com­mer­cially avail­a­ble sen­sors to meas­ure elec­tri­cal brain waves—de­vices called or elec­troen­cephalo­grams—sci­en­tists learn­ed to tell apart one per­son’s brain pat­terns for com­mands such as “left,” “right,” “ac­cel­er­ate” or “brake.” They then cre­at­ed an in­ter­face to con­nect the sen­sors to their oth­er­wise purely com­put­er-con­trolled ve­hi­cle.

A driver tests out a brain-controlled car at Ber­lin's for­mer Tem­pel­hof Air­port a vi­deo posted on YouTube. (Cour­tesy Au­to­no­mos Labs)


Although the machine needs some work and cer­tainly has its draw­backs, its de­vel­o­pers in­sist it could be­come one op­tion for the trans­port­ation of the future.

The brain-driven bug­gy was tested at the site of a Ber­lin air­port that closed down two years ago, Tem­pel­hof.

The re­search­ers first used the sen­sors to meas­ure brain waves in such a way that a per­son could move a vir­tu­al cu­be in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions with the pow­er of his or her thoughts. The test sub­ject thinks of four situa­t­ions as­so­ci­at­ed with driv­ing, such as “turn left” or “ac­cel­er­ate.” In this way the par­ti­ci­pant “trains” a com­put­er to in­ter­pret bioe­lec­tri­cal wave pat­terns emit­ted from his or her brain and to link them to a com­mand that could lat­er be used to con­trol the car. 

The com­put­er sci­en­tists con­nected the meas­ur­ing de­vice with the steer­ing, ac­cel­er­a­tor, and brakes of their au­to­mo­bile.

The driv­er “was able to con­trol the car with no prob­lem—there was only a slight de­lay be­tween the en­vis­aged com­mands and the re­sponse of the car,” said Raúl Ro­jas, who heads the Au­to­no­mos lab­o­r­a­to­ry at the uni­vers­ity. In a sec­ond test ver­sion, he added, the car drove largely au­to­mat­ic­ally, but the driv­er was able to set the di­rec­tion at cross­ings.


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You’d better not let your thoughts wander if you drive using a new technology from the Free University of Berlin. Computer scientists there have developed a system that lets people steer a car with their thoughts. Using new, commercially available sensors to measure electrical brain waves—devices called or electroencephalograms—the scientists learned to tell apart one person’s brain patterns for commands such as “left,” “right,” “accelerate” or “brake.” They then created an interface to connect the sensors to their otherwise purely computer-controlled vehicle. The brain-driven buggy was tested at the site of a Berlin airport that closed down two years ago, Tempelhof. The researchers first used the sensors to measure brain waves in such a way that a person could move a virtual cube in different directions with the power of his or her thoughts. The test subject thinks of four situations associated with driving, such as “turn left” or “accelerate.” In this way the participant “trains” a computer to interpret bioelectrical wave patterns emitted from his or her brain and to link them to a command that could later be used to control the car. The computer scientists connected the measuring device with the steering, accelerator, and brakes of their automobile. The driver “was able to control the car with no problem—there was only a slight delay between the envisaged commands and the response of the car,” said Prof. Raúl Rojas, who heads the AutoNOMOS laboratory at the university. In a second test version, the car drove largely automatically, but the driver was able to set the direction at crossings.