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German scientists develop thought-controlled car

posted 19 Apr 2011, 06:22 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 19 Apr 2011, 06:26 ]

German scientists are developing technology which allows a person to steer and drive a car using brain power alone. Using a cap fitted with sensors and an onboard computer, the researchers are able to control their experimental Volkswagen, just by thinking about it.

A young science student from Berlin's Free University attaches a "neuroheadset" to his head, gives himself a quick head massage and starts his experiment looking like a character in a science fiction movie.


Hendrik Matzke is about to show off the possibilities of thought-directed action - not in a hi-tech laboratory but on the tarmac of the city's former Tempelhof airport. Matzke is about to take a specially adapted Volkswagen Passat for a drive without touching the steering wheel.

"On the screen you can see a  cube which represents the thoughts which are going through my head. So you can steer it forwards, this is to accelerate and if you come back from the screen then you brake and left and right is the steering movements for the car," he told Reuters TV before the start of the experiment in the "BrainDriver" car.

And then he puts his hands behind his head and off he - and the car - go. To direct the vehicle to turn left or right, or to accelerate, Matzke must focus his thoughts on moving the cube in the preferred direction. Software inside the computer can detect and interpret the bioelectric brain waves being transmitted via the headset and associate them with

pre-programmed commands to steer the car. The researchers then feed the commands to a drive system that controls the steering wheel, the accelerator and the brakes.

Matzke says the experiments take the idea of multi-tasking to a new level.

"If I fix my thoughts and want to steer the car then I have to concentrate hard but I should still be able to talk at the same time. It should be possible," he said while driving the car "hands-free".

Daniel Goehrung, the leader of the Laboratory for Cognitive Navigation sits in the back of the car. He follows what is happening and is prepared to step in if needed.

"So at the beginning I push a button, switch on the programme and then I give him a sign that he can now control then car. Then I look at the data which comes out of it. In an emergency I could probably switch something off but I don't do anything more. I only really watch what is happening," Goehring said from the car still navigating itself on Matzke's brain waves.

Nevertheless, says Goehring, cars being driven by thought power are not being developed as a viable commercial enterprise. Rather, it's a proof-of-concept experiment that could be adapted in the future to other, less dangerous scenarios.

"The goal is of course to make this "BrainDriver" usable in daily life but of course you have to look at the usage. For example, there are many opportunities which are being researched, for example the development of a wheelchair for disabled people which is driven by thought, which would then be steered in the corridor or in open spaces at a slow speed, and which could also make left/right decisions at specific points. This must definitely become useful in daily life but being able to drive a car purely using thoughts, this is certainly not the goal because it is by far still far too dangerous," he said.

Goehring says he's very happy with progress his team has made with the Passat but refining the technology for real-world use will require a great deal more thought.