Nissan doesn’t care about little self-driving pods. With the automaker’s brain-to-vehicle technology, unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, the Japanese automaker is going thumbing its nose at the futurist vision of box-shaped vehicles transporting disinterested (or sex-having) he proverbial city of tomorrow.
Instead, with the company’s brain-reading helmet, Nissan tells Inverse it is focused on technologies that keep the driver at the heart of the “driverless” car, bringing the passion of driving culture to a new era.
“It’s one of the reasons of showing it to the world and not just keeping in my lab back in Japan,” Lucian Gheorghe, Nissan senior innovation researcher, tells Inverse. “Trying to scream out loud that we should still be able to have fun when driving, and this is one way of doing it.”
As you can probably guess, Nissan is not about to start reading your subconscious thoughts. In its current concept, the wireless cap measures motor activity-related cortical potential signals, the indicators that your brain gives out whenever it wants the body to move. These can appear two seconds before movement. The cap is able to tell a driver is about to make a movement somewhere between 200 and 500 milliseconds before it happens, giving the car enough time to preemptively act.
It’s something of a passion project for Gheorghe, who has been exploring the use of brain measurements for the past 12 years. The project has its roots back in 2011, when he proposed a collaboration project with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland on brain-computer interface technology. In April 2015, Gheorghe was made senior innovation researcher, a prestigious position that gives him freedom to explore the far-flung future of driving.
Gheorghe sees two main uses for the cap. The first is in augmenting manual driving to improve response times, which can make the car feel “sportier” and more like a Nissan GTR performance car. Because the cap measures brain activity that governs the body’s movement, there’s no need to worry about keep your thoughts calm and collected at all times. You’re free to angrily ponder the prospect of slamming on the brakes to hit the guy tailgating you, but the cap only cares when the brain starts the process of making your body move.
“If in this situation, when you say ‘rargh, I would like to turn right into this guy’, but I’m not moving, if you’re not moving, there this no such MRCP [signal] appearing, so this command would not go,” Gheorghe says.
It’s in the second application, in autonomous cars, where Gheorghe’s mandate to predict the future shines through. With the cap, the car can learn how a driver expects the vehicle to move and tune the experience accordingly. This is about reading specific signals and catching when a rider is in “discord” with the last event that took place. With this information, the A.I. can learn from the rider and fine-tune the vehicle’s acts accordingly, resulting in a more personalized ride.
“This is Nissan’s philosophy,” Gheorghe says. “The core value is the driver, or in the case of AV, the rider’s experience. We are not developing a machine that can drive on the road, we are developing a vehicle that delivers a positive driving experience.”
While futurists like Jeffrey Tumlin and transport officials like Shashi Verma may see the autonomous car as a city-dwelling machine that ferries residents around a small area, Nissan doesn’t see itself as differentiating particularly strongly in these areas. Instead, the company remains dedicated to the best interactions between man and machine.
“Even in the future when you have the choice not to drive, there will still be a population that would like to have the choice to drive, and this would be the time when we can increase both types of experience,” Gheorghe says.
Unfortunately, the cap exists as just a concept right now. In the future, a third party could produce a cap that works with a similar system to add these features into their car. This would be a similar arrangement to the Bluetooth support found in car stereos, where drivers provide their own music source. It’s early days, but Nissan may have found a way to make the autonomous vehicle exciting again.