Driving a Car with Your ThoughtsPossible, But is it Practical?
Insurance Experts' Forum, February 28, 2011
It’s always fascinating to me to hear about new technologies that promise unheard of capabilities in our lives, so when a ScienceDaily article recently reported that scientists have developed a system making it possible to steer a car with your thoughts, I had to know more.
According to the article, a group of scientists at the Free University of Berlin have built a system that uses new, commercially available sensors to measure brain waves—sensors for recording electroencephalograms (EEG). The scientists have been able to distinguish the bioelectrical wave patterns for control commands such as "left," "right," "accelerate" or "brake" in a test subject.
They then developed an interface to connect the sensors to their otherwise purely computer-controlled vehicle, so that it can now be "controlled" via thoughts. As described in the article, the test subject thinks of the four driving situations mentioned above. The computer is then “trained” to interpret bioelectrical wave patterns emitted from the driver’s brain and to link them to a command that could later be used to control the car. The computer scientists connected the measuring device with the steering, accelerator and brakes of a computer-controlled vehicle, which made it possible for the subject to influence the movement of the car just using his or her thoughts.
Cool as this sounds, however, there are a number of technological and insurance-related obstacles to its adoption. First, the computer must be trained, as mentioned, but who trains the driver to stay focused on the proper thoughts? In addition, the driver must wear a specially designed “cap” with 16 sensors that keep track of his or her brain activity. It’s easy to imagine that a tired driver might apply the cap in the wrong position, or might have their thought commands interrupted, especially at the sight of a distraction like an attractive woman or man strolling by.
Responsiveness of the system may also be an issue, since the scientists acknowledge that there was a “slight delay” between the thought command and the vehicle’s response. Of course, if the system continues to improve, many of these technical drawbacks will be addressed, but the one thing that is unlikely to happen is that humans will, as a whole, be able to significantly improve their ability to focus. Just having another person in the car talking to you, or listening to the radio, could be enough to impair the system’s functionality—and perhaps threaten the safety of those in the car and anyone else nearby.
And that brings us to the question of auto insurance. Surely, if such vehicles were commercially available, not only the cars, but the drivers themselves would have to be rated on some kind of reliability scale. It seems to me that anyone diagnosed with attention deficit disorder would immediately be disqualified from driving the vehicle, as would anyone who could not demonstrate sufficient ability to focus over what could be considerable lengths of time, depending on how long the driver drives.
Even then, there might have to be further restrictions on what kinds of distracting devices would be allowed in such a vehicle. Would we as insurers prohibit any type of entertainment system? Would we specify that no additional passengers who might distract the driver would be permitted?
In the end, this technology, while interesting, strikes me as being uninsurable and impractical—not because it doesn’t work, but because we will be unable to interact with it perfectly. Then again, maybe a scientist or someone else out there has a plan that will essentially turn us into driving robots.
If so, please keep that plan to yourself. Thanks so much.
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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