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July 31, 2011

Taking A Brake: Making Driving Easier/Safer Through Neuroscience

It appears as though we're going back to the future, again, through the help of neuroscience. This time around, there is no time travel involved...just brain waves. A group of German researchers have recently used drivers' brain signals to assist in automated car braking, resulting in quicker reaction times and a potential solution to prevent thousands upon thousands of car accidents each year caused by human error.

The braking system is actually quite simple: through an EEG connected to the scalp and with modern traffic sensors equipped in most luxury cars today, the scientists could detect a driver's intention to break nearly 130 milliseconds faster than they would manually braking themselves. This 130-millisecond difference is phenomenal in that it nearly circumvents all the 'thinking' a human has to do to perform the same braking action.

Crunching Numbers: At 100 km/h, this means that the automated braking system would spare the average driver approximately 12 feet in space compared to manual breaking, which is just about the size of a standard compact vehicle. The twelve feet of distance gained by the driver could be the difference between a minor fender bender and a fatal car crash, or even no car accident at all.

But, this arising technology certainly isn't foolproof. For this reason, the scientists at Berlin Institute for Technology added a second component to their braking system: EMG. Instead of relying on brain signals for car braking, they also use human leg muscles for the same purpose. The scientists measure leg muscle tension associated with braking and are able to sense when a person is going to brake before their legs even reach the brake pedal. Thus, adding another safety dynamic to the overall automatic braking system.

Unfortunately, this technology is still new and undergoing initial testing. Most trials are conducted through simulations and computer programs and haven't been integrated into real working vehicles.

According to the lead author of the study: "We are now considering to test the system online in a real car however if such a technology would ever enter a commercial product, it would certainly be used to complement other assistive technology to avoid the consequences of false alarms that could be both annoying and dangerous." I think it is important to note that under no circumstances are the scientists trying to replace human function, they are only trying to strengthen and improve it.

The thought of automated braking and driving is actually kind of frightening. Where should we draw the line in terms of technology replacing what we do as humans? Are there any caveats that we simply can't predict with this automated driving technology?

As far as I'm concerned, I would love for this technology to gain funding and respect in the scientific community. But until we actually know what we're doing with it, I'd prefer for it to remain on computer simulations until I know I can trust my life or other people's lives with it.

Sources: (Full Text PDF Available on Website)
Posted by      Jordan E. at 10:54 PM MDT


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