Brain-powered car offers ultimate weapon against distracted driving

Multitasking: It's part of our society. It's in our culture. And, if we're honest, we believe we're good at it. We can make dinner while holding a phone conversation. We can reply to emails while ordering our favorite footlong. And we can certainly manage to drink our morning coffee from behind the wheel.

Or at least we think we can. But top psychologists, like Dr. Lisa Jefferies, say otherwise, stating that while we may think we are blending these activities into one, and doing that job well, we are in fact switching between them like apps on an iPhone: "Every time you switch," Jefferies says, "there's a cost."

That cost is inattentiveness.

Imagine a car, therefore, that can read you brain via sensors in a headset, connect its findings to the engine, and cut power when it detects you getting distracted. The folks at the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) of Western Australia teamed up with Emotiv to create such a vehicle, dubbed the Attention Powered Car.

It works via Emotiv's EPOC neuro-headset, featuring 14 sensors detecting electrical activity from the frontal, temple, parietal and perceptual areas of the brain. By measuring your brain waves, it deduces whether you're cognitively processing something or if you have simply zoned out — an issue as dangerous as texting, according to the RAC. Most importantly, they say, is that the headset can tell if you're task-switching, meaning you're paying attention to things besides driving.

It also monitors blink rates to asses fatigue, and can tell if the driver turns their head away from the road. By plugging the headset into the car's computers (the team is currently testing the system on a Hyundai i40), the software sends a cut off signal to the engine and switches to idle when an activity deviates from the predetermined "normal" zones.

There's a few flaws immediately apparent with this system. Cutting the power doesn't eliminate a crash, and could cause a crash if the driver or tailgaters get startled by the deceleration. But the RAC says the system isn't yet a solution; they are merely bringing attention to the problem, continuing testing, and researching a true alternative down the road.

An inattentive warning sound — similar to what some high-end Mercedes models sport now — might work better. But for the purpose of shock value, cutting the power makes a larger statement. The idea stems from Western Australia ranking as the worst in its class in terms of road deaths per 100,000 people. Back in the 1990s, they were number one, and local experts estimate 20 to 30 percent of their road deaths now occur from distracted driving. (Americans fare slightly better, with just 10 percent of fatalities occurring in 2011 because of distraction, according to distraction.gov. Close to 400,000 people, however, were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers.)

It's a problem we're well aware of, and fully autonomous cars could offer a solution within the decade. But could neuro-headsets, such as Emotiv's, prove a worthy alternative? Or could it work as a useful training tool for drivers, emphasizing how easy it is to become distracted? As Jefferies and others contend, multitasking is a myth. When you sip a cup of coffee while driving, you are actually task switching, continuously diverting your attention, if only for a split second. Sometimes, a split second is all it takes.

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