Emotiv, the company that has commercialised mind-controlled interfaces with its Epoc headset, has developed a road safety system that automatically slows acceleration when a driver exhibits signs of distraction.
The project is an initiative commissioned by the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia designed to raise public awareness about a problem that has been increasing on the country’s western coast. Statistics provided by the RAC reveal that 20 percent of Australian drivers involved in crashes admit they were staring directly at the object they ended up hitting — but because they were distracted, they did not comprehend what was happening at the time.
“The brain is basically an attention machine,” explains Geoffrey Mackellar, CEO of Emotiv Research and Emotiv Lifesciences. “The front part of the brain has to be active and very much involved in driving because the subconscious brain doesn’t know that driving out of a lane is going to cause a problem.”
Measuring this state of mind is obviously a tricky thing to do, but Emotiv was well placed for the task. The company’s headset, which recently secured additional funding for its revamped product, uses sensors to measure the electrical signals in the brain. The new version is fitted with a six-axis inertial sensor made up of a three-axis gyroscope and a three-axis accelerometer, which can judge head motion, eye movement and even eyelid blinks. Its initial use was in teaching users to concentrate on a specific task at hand to, for instance, control an electronic toy with their mind — hence Emotiv knows a lot about recognising focus and distraction. RAC asked, what would happen if neural information from an Epoc headset was plugged into a car’s computer?
To begin, Emotiv had to measure what daydreaming looks like using the headset’s total 14 sensors, by asking volunteers to carry out a range of tasks while wearing it. These tasks included using a mobile phone while driving, switching radio channels or reading an item. Drivers were also instructed to tune out while driving at a safe speed in the test area, to see what daydreaming looked like.
The gyroscope was used to pick up on a more obvious distraction — if a driver turns their head away from the road — while slowing eye scanning, gaze or blinking rates were flagged up as warning signs (after measuring what normal blink rates etc are for a particular person).
More complex, however, was the information gathered to recognise neural patterns of distraction as cognitive processing slides, and those that show if a person is “task switching” i.e. going from focusing on the road and driving your car, to sending a text.
“The fact is that you cannot do more than one thing at a time usually, you are in fact switching from one to the other,” said Lisa Jefferies, a PhD student of psychology at Murdoch University working with RAC. “And every time you switch, there’s a cost.”
It was important to have a measure for task switching, rather than to just rely on physical traits of distraction such as head movement because, as Jefferies points out, a person’s emotional state can affect their attention levels and be far more subtly expressed.
The system was setup so that that as soon as any of these measures of inattention are sensed, the car slows its acceleration and trundles along. When attention returns, the car speeds back up.
One of the strongest points to come out of the study, says Mackellar, is that “attention switching is a very good indication of distraction”. RAC is hoping it will do some good by highlighting task-switching as an important factor that people take into account alongside other well known dangers, such as drinking while driving.
“Nationally, it is estimated inattention was a factor in 46 per cent of fatal crashes,” says Pat walker, Executive General Manager Advocay and Member Benefits RAC. “Inattention is something all of use can relate to, those times our mind wanders, we turn around and talk to our kids in the back. We’re keen to encourage all of us to think about the way we drive and that’s why this project is very important to us.”
The modified Hyundai i40 used in the study has just begun a tour of Western Australia to publicise the work done by the RAC and Emotiv.
Meanwhile in other related car safety news, an electrical engineer in Japan has developed a system using a driver’s EEG levels that can detect when the vehicle has been hijacked. When the levels change, the car will slow to a halt, recognising that the driver has changed.