July 29, 2011 -- It's the future. You're racing down the highway when, all of a sudden, the driver ahead of you slows down. You know you need to hit the brakes to avoid an accident, but your foot can't move as fast as your brain. You're about to rear-end the guy, except. ...
... except that your car has read your mind. It picks up your brain waves and automatically slows down. Accident averted.
This is not fantasy. Researchers in Germany have run an experiment with drivers in a car simulator, and they report in the current issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering that they were able to identify brain waves that corresponded to a driver's wish to press the brake pedal. They tried the experiment with 18 test subjects, each of whom wore a cap wired with EEG sensors. If the drivers wanted to slam on the brakes, the car did it a crucial fraction of a second more quickly than they could.
"Waiting for the driver's response can lead to a slow response in emergency situations," wrote Stefan Haufe of the Berlin Institute of Technology. "Therefore, in order to obtain a faster confirmation, our study suggests that it is feasible to detect a driver's intention to brake, which naturally precedes any observable actions."
On average, in the study, brain waves told the car to hit the brakes 130 milliseconds faster than the driver's foot did.
"While this may not seem [like] much, it may be enough to prevent accidents," said Haufe in an email to ABC News.
In his experiment, a car doing 62 mph (100 km per hour) would need 12-15 fewer feet to come to a stop. That could be the difference between a crash and just some screeching tires.
The technology is far from ready for real roads. (For one thing, nobody is going to wear a weird cap covered with electrodes.) The researchers warn, "The EEG system has to cope with a multitude of artefacts" -- a nice word for random electronic noises -- "that are stronger than the neural signals."
But they're getting better. Haufe suggested that an actual braking system activated by brain waves have some sort of backup -- perhaps a radar to confirm that the car was closing in on something -- so that the car wouldn't screech to a halt simply because the driver was chewing or clenching his teeth.
Therefore," he said, "this approach is quite safe and false alarms of the EEG detector do not have immediate severe consequences."
Experiments in this area have gradually shown promise. Back in 2005 a Massachusetts biotech firm, Cyberkinetics, reported it was able to implant electrodes in the brain of a paralyzed man so that he could move a robot arm or a computer mouse. The movements back then were fairly imprecise, and the volunteer eventually asked to stop the experiment, but research continues.
In 2008, in an experiment at the University of Pittsburgh, a monkey was able to use brain waves to command a robot arm to lift food to its mouth.
"It shows we're understanding more about brain function," said Pitt neurobiologist Andrew Schwartz at the time. "And we're rapidly reaching the point where we'll have something that's really nice to use."
Shifting Gears With Your Head
It has become commonplace enough that Toyota could back an experiment by a Pennsylvania firm called Deeplocal, which is working on a bicycle that can shift gears based on EEG signals received through the cyclist's helmet.
"I'm not the best at shifting," said senior engineer Patrick Miller. "You have to train. I almost had to envision myself using a muscle that I don't have. But once I got it, it's not too bad."
The helmet, said Miller, "is off-the shelf. You could probably get one on Amazon."