David Zax

A View from David Zax

Nissan's Cars Will Read Your Mind

The Japanese automaker is teaming up with Swiss researchers to build a car that will predict its driver’s intentions.

  • September 29, 2011

In the future–don’t ask how distant–your car may be able to read your mind.

Nissan announced that it would be collaborating with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland (EPFL) on a car that would be able to make an educated guess about what a driver’s intentions are. The idea isn’t quite to have a car be steered by the driver’s mind alone–as in this German concept proposing that a car brake for you, based on brain signals. Rather, the car would read the driver’s mind and prepare itself for a manually executed maneuver. Think about turning to the right, for instance, and the car will adopt the appropriate speed and road position.

How could a car know what you’re thinking? For one thing, it would use brain-computer interface (BCI) technology developed at EPFL. The Swiss researchers, led by Professor José del R. Millán, are acknowledged leaders in this space, having created an interface that enables the steering of a wheelchair by thought alone, for instance.

But the car would read more than the driver’s mind. The car’s sensors could scan around the car itself, effectively cross-checking what the driver is thinking with what’s actually out there. You may want to turn left–but if there’s a Mack truck in your blind spot, your car will know better. By combining brain and environmental data, the car (and driver) makes smarter choices. “The idea is to blend driver and vehicle intelligence together in such a way that eliminates conflicts between them, leading to a safer motoring environment,” José del R. Millán recently said.

EPFL isn’t the first academic institution to dabble in hands-free driving. A German university– Freie Universität Berlin–got there first.

But to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a major car manufacturer has joined the effort, bringing the research into the realm of commercial, mass-market reality. The EPFL collaboration is part of a six-year plan Nissan calls “Power 88”; other technology projects include smart cruise control, distance control assist, and moving object detection–basically, more and more ways of automating the driving experience.

All of which raises the question: won’t mind-reading cars be obsolete in an era of driverless cars?

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