Australian researchers unveil ‘attention-powered’ car


Australian road safety researchers Wednesday unveiled a pioneering “attention-powered” car that uses a headset to monitor brain activity and slow acceleration during periods of distraction.

The car, commissioned by the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia, is about to depart on an awareness-raising road trip of Western Australia — a sprawling west coast state accounting for about one-third of the continent.

Lead researcher Geoffrey Mackellar, from neuroengineering company Emotiv, said the accelerator could be overridden by a headset with 14 sensors measuring the type and amount of brain activity that determined whether a driver was distracted.

In the testing phase, drivers were set specific challenges such as using their mobile phone, switching channels on the radio, drinking water or reading a map so that researchers could record their brain activity. They were also sent on a 15-kph “boredom lap” to see what happened when their brains “zoned out.”

Emad Tahtouh, from production company FINCH, said the car used an array of neural inputs and specially designed software to “go when you’re paying attention and slow when you’re not.”

“We’re looking at things like blink rate, blink duration, gaze rate — how long they look at a point — eyes moving, head tilts and also frequency of task-switching and the level of brain activity when they flick over to those tasks, so it’s a huge pool of data,” he said.

“If someone lost attention and they switched tasks to, say, reading their mobile phone, or even if they just zoned out, it would usually be represented by a very sharp dip and sometimes very erratic behavior.”

The car works by reducing acceleration when it detects a loss of attention, and speeding back up once full focus is back on driving.

The pilot vehicle, a customized Hyundai i40, was built for the RAC as part of a research and publicity campaign to reduce the number of road deaths in the state, which are the worst in Australia.