I Think Therefore I Drive

10th December 2020

With vehicle brainware technology making it possible to pilot a car using mind control, could these advances enable people with disabilities to get back behind the wheel?

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Since its inception in the 1880s, the motor car has evolved from a machine that had to be cranked up by hand to a highly computerised technical marvel that can even be driven au-tonomously – an idea that for most of us, conjures images of commuters pootling around cit-ies at 20mph in boring pods. For racing drivers with disabilities, however, rapid technological advances offer the exciting prospect of driving again. Welcome to the world of motorsport where the cars are controlled not by throttle and brake pedals, but by cameras, sensors and multi-million-pound electronics systems, which can interpret signals from everything ranging from eye movement to the brain’s neurons.

Sam Schmidt, a 56-year-old American racing driver, was left a paraplegic after a 210mph crash in 2000. In 2017 he teamed up with Arrow Electronics, a Fortune 500 company, to turn a Chevrolet Corvette into a sophisticated and very fast computer, with a million dollars’ worth of cameras and sensors on board – in what has been described as semi-autonomous driving. Acceleration is caused by Schmidt blowing through a tube with sensors, braking by sucking. Sensors mitigate any unforeseen surges to the system, such as sneezing. Steering is con-trolled by a special pair of sunglasses Schmidt wears which translate eye movement into di-rection. Using this system, Schmidt has stormed up Pikes Peak at race speeds, although he says that’s the only time the blow-and-suck system came undone – due to breathlessness caused by the high altitude of the course.

The next step, neural control, has been toyed with for a few years now. “Brainware technolo-gy” is where a driver controls the car with his or her mind. The car’s tech picks up on neural signals near the surface of your brain, runs the signals at lightning speed through algorithms and turns it into movement. Essentially, the system learns your brain’s baseline mapping, then recognises a move away from that to your brain focusing on a task, and turns that into an output, such as forward movement of the car. In 2017, technology created by San Fran-cisco-based bioinformatics company, Emotiv, enabled a quadriplegic man, Rodrigo Hübner Mendes, to become the first person to pilot a Formula One car using the power of his mind alone. Mendes drove the car around a track in Brazil using an Emotiv-designed on-board computer that translated his thoughts into commands in the vehicle. “To accelerate, I thought that I was celebrating a soccer goal,” Mendes explains. “To turn right, I thought that I was eat-ing a delicious food.”

The question is, what tangible benefits do neural, voice and eye control promise for motor-sport? Nathalie McGloin, President of the FIA Disability and Accessibility Commission, and a tetraplegic racing driver, thinks the potential is huge. “Currently, most disabled drivers who drive with hand controls will not have authority over gear changes and leave the car in drive. The development of autonomous vehicle technology could allow disabled people to use pad-dle shifters via voice control, for example. This technology could also give disabled racers more choice when it comes to adapting competition cars.” The wider opportunity is to get disabled people back behind the wheel. “This would be a huge breakthrough,” says McGloin. “Independence, whatever form that takes, means so much to disabled people”.

As Schmidt says: “If you can dream it, find the right people, find the right resources, and it can be done. It’s cool stuff.” Likewise, Tan Le, founder of Emotiv, describes watching Mendes’s drive as “incredible… I grew up loving Star Wars, so the idea of moving an object with my mind is already the stuff of science fiction and stuff of fantasy. That alone is cool. But driving a Formula One car? That takes it to another level!”

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