John Prine wasn’t far off when he sang in “Living In the Future” that “we’re all driving rocket ships and talking with our minds.” We’re still waiting for our rocket ships, but German researchers have developed a car you can drive with your mind.
BrainDriver uses off-the-shelf parts, including an electroencephalography system designed for gaming, to control an autonomous Volkswagen Passat. The car isn’t very fast, and it responds to only rudimentary commands, but it brings us one step closer to the day we’re simply passengers along for the ride in vehicles that drive themselves.
“The whole thing was not done as a real application for today, but as a ‘technology push,’ as a proof of concept of what technology can already achieve” says Raul Rojas, a professor of artificial intelligence at the Free University of Berlin. “An intriguing question is how to ‘hybridize’ human and machine, and it was fun to try this with our car.”
The thought-controlled car underscores the pace of development since Darpa kick-started autonomous vehicle research in 2004 with the Grand Challenge. In the past six months alone we’ve seen a robotic Audi TTS scale Pikes Peak and students at Virginia Tech University develop a car the blind can drive. Volvo has participated in a successful test of autonomous “road trains,” and Google’s autonomous cars have racked up more than 140,000 miles.
Although we’re still a long way from the day our cars do the driving for us, we’re seeing some of the technology in production cars. Adaptive cruise control is but one example of artificial intelligence on four wheels.
Last year Rojas and his colleagues developed EyeDriver, a car you control with eye movements. That got them thinking about using the human mind to control a vehicle directly.
BrainDriver uses an electroencephalography headset developed by Emotiv. Sixteen sensors measure the brain’s electromagnetic signals and send them to a computer. The computer translates them into directions — turn left, turn right, accelerate, stop — for the car’s drive-by-wire autonomous system to control the brakes, accelerator and steering.
“Of course this is somewhat slow for real driving. since the interpretation-integration of commands takes some time, and therefore you need a big open space to test.” Rojas says.
The technology also doesn’t work with everyone.
“There is something people in the brain-computer interface community call ‘BCI literacy,’ that is, that you can really use a BCI and control a computer,” Rojas says. “For unknown reasons a big chunk of the population is BCI-illiterate.”
That required testing a handful of students. Only the most “literate” one was turned loose in the Passat.
“He is so good that our psychologists at the university are starting now to measure him with much more sensors and even to scan him in an fMRI machine,” Rojas says. “They want to find out why some people are BCI-illiterate and others aren’t.”
The team tested the tech two weeks ago at Tempelhof airport to avoid hitting anything, and on campus — albeit with more rigorous control by the human driver. Although the technology works, Rojas says it probably has little application in automobiles.
“Since our main goal is that the car drives itself, and we just give commands now and then, probably speech recognition is a better choice,” he says. “But BCI is fascinating, and I cannot really foresee now where all this is going.”
Rojas and his team plan to demonstrate their autonomous car with a real-world test in Berlin traffic later this year.
“We are about to receive the permission from the city, and we already insured the car for 25 million euros” [$34.5 million], he says. “We don’t think we will need the insurance but the city is not taking any chances!”
Photos and video: Freie Universität Berlin.