Mind-controlled cars? This brain-computer interface could transform driving

Motor show attendees can strap on a wearable headset and use their thoughts to accomplish a number of tasks like finding a parking spot, according to Mercedes-Benz.

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Image: Daimler/Mercedes-Benz

Telekinetic powers are a sci-fi staple allowing people to use their minds to control the physical world around them. Brain-computer interfaces provide similar seemingly wizard powers, albeit typically with some elaborate headwear or the occasional brain implant. Helmets and hardware aside, this tech could transform the traditional tasks of our flesh and bone bodies into mere mental work, and a motor show in Germany is demonstrating just that. On Monday, Mercedes-Benz published a release outlining a series of BCI capabilities the company is working on with its concept car known as VISION AVTR. So, how does it work?

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"Mercedes-Benz is setting another milestone in the merging of man and machine with the research and development of brain-computer interface applications in cars. BCI technology has the potential to further enhance driving comfort in the future, for example," said Britta Seeger, member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG, responsible for sales.

Mercedes describes  hypothetical thought-controlled in-car features drivers could one day activate using a brain-computer interface (BCI) such as switching the radio station and dialing down the interior ambient lighting. While other BCI approaches use implants to provide these capabilities (more on this in a bit), the Mercedes-Benz method is markedly less invasive. The process starts with a "short calibration" of the BCI unit affixed to a person's head and then the device analyzes "the measured brain waves and triggers a defined function," per the release.

At this week's IAA MOBILITY motor show, the company is presenting a demonstration of this BCI tech as well as a "preview of mind control as a new dimension of human interaction with the vehicle," the release said, and attendees will have a chance to engage with the vehicle interface in real time and control this system with their thoughts.

The IAA demonstration will use a VISION AVTR seat mockup and project a series of lights onto a digital dashboard, while the head-mounted BCI device measures "the neuronal activity at the cortex" as the wearer's brain reacts to these stimuli, the release said.

"[The BCI device] analyses the measured brain waves and recognises on which light points the user directs his focus and full attention (attention-sensing interface). The stronger the focus, the higher the neuronal activity. The device then triggers the targeted function in the vehicle," per the release.

The dashboard includes "digital VISION AVTR worlds" and wearers can focus on the illuminated dots and use their thoughts to "generate wind, grow plants, select parking spaces to charge or turn day into night."

"They will experience how quickly their own brain connects with the vehicle – similar to the neuronal connection between the Na'vi and the nature in the visionary Hollywood blockbuster 'AVATAR,'" the release said.

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Image: Daimler/Mercedes-Benz

Brain implants and user interfaces

A number of organizations are developing BCI capabilities with varying degrees of invasiveness. While many tech companies are using external headwear to measure brain activity, Elon Musk's company Neuralink is using brain implants to provide telekinetic powers of sorts. As TechRepublic reported in April, Elon Musk's company Neuralink published a video on its official YouTube channel that shows an implant-enhanced monkey named Pager playing a game of Pong using only its mind.

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Neuralink hopes to first "give people with paralysis their digital freedom back," according to a company blog post, and this includes communicating "more easily via text, to follow their curiosity on the web, to express their creativity through photography and art, and, yes, to play video games." The company said it next intends to use these capabilities to "help improve the lives of those with neurological disorders and disabilities in other ways" like potentially restoring "physical mobility."

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