Introducing Nissan’s Brain to Vehicle Technology at CES 2018

Nissan is developing a way to help drivers execute evasive maneuvers faster using brain wave technology, the company announced today. By recognizing whether a driver is about to brake, swerve, or perform some other evasive move, Nissan says that this “brain-to-vehicle” interface could help a car with semi-autonomous capabilities begin those actions between 0.2 and 0.5 seconds faster.

The company plans to put this technology on display next week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. But details are otherwise light. “It’s something that’s being shown in a relatively early phase, and is not yet close to implementation,” a representative for Nissan said via email. “We are aiming for practical application in 5 to 10 years.”

The ability to measure and interpret neurons firing in the brain has come a long way over the years, and it is possible to associate those patterns with specific activities. The devices that are typically used to perform these measurements, though, can be cumbersome and come with limitations.

The main way to measure these electrical patterns in a person’s brain is with a method called electroencephalography, or EEG. This technology requires the use of a headset dotted with electrodes that either press directly against a person’s scalp or come as close as possible.

Researchers have used EEG headsets to control everything from prosthetic limbs to video games. But the accuracy and reliability of EEG often hinges on the quality of the contact between the electrodes and the scalp, and it can sometimes be thrown off by the electric current produced by the muscles in our bodies. When speaking to The Verge about EEG tech being used to control devices at CES 2016, multiple neurologists expressed caution about the idea of using it in a normal car.

Nissan is using EEG tech in its brain-to-vehicle solution, but it’s unclear how the company is tackling some of these problems. The video that accompanies Nissan’s press release shows a driver wearing a headset full of electrodes, which the company says has been designed so that it won’t be a distraction.

“As a result, our device is easy to wear, lightweight and features high-performance dry-sensors. We made the device wireless so the driver will hardly know it’s there when it’s worn,” a representative for Nissan says. He added that the device the company has been using for research needs to be “smaller and more stable” before it’s reliable enough for practical use.

Nissan has help in this quest to create a brain-assisted car. The company has been working on the project with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which helped create the Cybathalon, a competition where people with disabilities competed in challenges using assistive technologies like EEG. It’s also collaborating with the National Institute of Scientific Research in Canada, and Bitbrain, a Spanish company focused on brain-computer interfaces.

Nissan is calling this an “exclusive” technology, but it’s not the first to explore the idea of bringing brain waves into the driving experience: Renault experimented with using EEG tech to control a car in 2016, Jaguar announced in 2015 that it was working on a way to measure a driver’s brain waves in order to make sure they were paying attention to the road, and researchers tested similar ideas as early as 2011.

Many other questions remain. How would the brain-to-vehicle system handle a situation where a driver makes one quick decision, but then immediately changes their mind, or encounters a new obstacle? At what point would the car’s own autonomous system, using the data it’s gathered through cameras or LIDAR and radar, override the brain computer interface — or should it? Will this tech even be ready before fully autonomous cars hit the road?