Hitting the Brakes


A new driving simulator is showing how mind-controlled brakes could make the road safer for all of us – and a new study using this system shows proves that our instincts know when to brake before our conscious minds do.

In all fairness, that sign was hard to see.

By attaching electrodes to the skin of volunteers in a driving simulator, researchers found that people could “hit the brakes” mentally about 130 milliseconds quicker, on average, than if they had to brake with their feet. This might not seem like much, but at 60 mph, this works out to a little over 12 feet saved – definitely enough to spare some lives.

The experiment was pretty ingenious – as reported in the Journal of Neural Engineering, a team of scientists led by Stefan Haufe at the Technische Universität Berlin measured their volunteers’ responses to a driving game through two methods: electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity across the scalp, and electromyography (EMG), which measures the electrical activity behind muscle movement.

Using the electrical data they gathered from a few fun rounds of “Oh God Hit the Brakes,” the team fine-tuned their system, making its responses even quicker for the next round of simulations:

Our EEG analysis yielded a characteristic event-related potential signature that comprised components related to the sensory registration of a critical traffic situation, mental evaluation of the sensory percept and motor preparation. While all these components should occur often during normal driving, we conjecture that it is their characteristic spatio-temporal superposition in emergency braking situations that leads to the considerable prediction performance we observed.

In other words, they figured out exactly what electrical patterns were generated just before people decided to brake, and used those as an indicator for when people were about to try to slam on the brake pedal.

But even if systems like this end up being installed in mass-market cars, Haufe says, we probably won’t be braking with our minds alone:

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.

Yeah, I can see how false alarms in rush-hour traffic would make mental brake-slamming a less-than-popular technology. Still, it’s pretty cool to see how this and other developments in “thought control” devices are on the verge of making our lives easier. Let’s be honest here – aren’t there at least some days when you wish you could run all your errands without lifting a finger?

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