'Mind-reading' cars that may help reduce accidents on the anvil

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London, January 20 : German engineers are manufacturing "smart" dashboards for vehicles, which will help reduce the amount of information displayed to drivers during stressful periods on the road, and thereby reduce the likelihood of accidents.

Klaus-Robert Muller, an engineer at the Technical University of Berlin, says that it may be available in just five years.

The researchers have found that reaction times can be improved in real driving conditions by monitoring drivers' brains, and reducing distractions during periods of high brain activity.

During a study, they were able to speed up driver's reactions by as much as 100 milliseconds, enough to reduce breaking distance by nearly 3 metres when travelling at 100 kilometres per hour.

"In a real life situation this could be enough to prevent an accident or stop someone being injured, or worse. We now have the brain-interface technology to make this a reality," New Scientist quoted him as saying.

Using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to measure brain activity, the researchers carried out tests on 12 male and five female drivers in ordinary, non-rush hour conditions on a German highway.

The subjects were asked to perform three tasks simultaneously, each of which required slightly more mental effort. The first task was to drive at 100 km/h, while the second was to hit a button mounted on the left or right of the steering wheel every 7.5 seconds when prompted.

The third task was to count down in steps of 27 from a randomly generated number between 800 and 900 for two minutes, and then to focus on one of two voices played simultaneously inside the vehicle.

When brain activity rose above a predefined threshold, the brain-interface device was rigged up to switch off the secondary task by clicking the steering wheel buttons, which sped up the subjects' reaction times by an average of 100 milliseconds.

Muller believes that such a device may be programmed to switch off superfluous information systems when the drivers' brain is already over-loaded by other stimuli - like while talking to other passengers - in a real-life situation.

This work has been hailed by Ben Heydecker, a transport expert at University College London.

"This is very interesting research that has shown these sorts of systems can be used. It will need to be developed and refined before it can be used practically, but it does suggest some very exciting possibilities in car safety," he said.

Muller admits that another major challenge is developing less intrusive EEG equipment.

"But I am confident that in five year's time we will have something," he said.

A paper describing the work has been published in a book Toward Brain-Computer Interfacing.

ANI

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