LAS VEGAS -- Might the car of the future be able to read your mind?
At CES, the big tech trade show, cars dominated much of the conversation. But one experience stood out because it was so far-out: I donned an experimental cap from Nissan that interpreted signals from my brain with the goal of making me a better driver.
Brainwave, as it's called, looked (and felt) pretty odd, with wires poking into my scalp. But it's an intriguing idea of how tech might make the driving experience more enjoyable, instead of just making it disappear.
No, Brainwave didn't let me drive without using my hands, or summon a ride with only my thoughts. But it did gather electroencephalogram, or EEG, data from 11 spots on my brain's motor cortex while I drove a videogame-style car simulation through some curvy terrain.
That brain data is useful for cars with semiautonomous capabilities, says Lucian Gheorghe, the Nissan scientist behind this tech. Certain brain waves, researchers have found, can be interpreted as a signal you want to turn the wheel, up to half a second before you actually do so. Brainwave could predict you want to turn, and the car's artificial intelligence could start action before your hands do.
"The idea is to try to build a partner from the AI, not to use the AI itself as a replacement," says Gheorghe. "Then every driver can drive better."
Every driver -- and car -- are a little different, so the simulation I test drove sought to collect data on two things: how fast my brain responds to road stimuli and the actual smoothness of my driving. For a more pleasurable drive, you want those two factors be as much in sync as possible.
If Brainwave ever gets to the market, it could help novice drivers smooth out their ride, and thus enjoy it more, says Gheorghe. Very experienced drivers might be able to use the tech to make ordinary vehicles handle like sporty ones.
Brainwave might also be useful in totally autonomous cars to give passenger feedback to the software doing the driving. When the passenger wants something to happen and it doesn't, Gheorghe says that "disaccord" can be measured in the brain. If Brainwaves senses disaccord while a self-driving car is speeding up, for example, the car could learn to ease up on the gas.
Now comes the hard part. Nissan isn't putting Brainwave in cars any time soon. Among its many challenges: Getting accurate EEG readings is very hard. Nissan cap wasn't particularly comfortable -- it has to figure out how to make one that can fit many head shapes.
Nissan probably doesn't want to be in the business of making brain-reading hats, says Gheorghe. But it wants to be prepared for a future where brain-reading technology might be something people use at home or work already, and can bring with them into the car. "We are becoming a manufacturer of brain-connected ready vehicles," he says.
We're at least 10 years out from truly melding mind and machine. But when it comes to driving, I'll take all the help I can get.