Geoff Mackeller, CEO of the engineering company Emotiv

Screen shot from the video appearing at the end of this post.

Once self-driving cars hit the roads, everyone in the car will be able to engage in distracted activities such as texting, eating, surfing the Web (perhaps via Google Glass) or having animated conversations. But with that convenience still many years away, a fascinating new study is casting more light on the problem of distracted driving, which the CDC estimates kills at least nine Americans every day, as Liz Stinson writes for Wired. She reports that two groups in Western Australia recently finished a research project based on a test vehicle called the Attention Powered Car, a car that runs at full speed only when its driver is paying complete attention to the road. Once the car detects that the driver is distracted, it slows down accordingly.

To create the vehicle, the two groups — the engineering company Emotiv and the Royal Automotive Club of Western Australia — connected a Hyundai i40 wagon (a model not available in the U.S.) to a driver headset that can monitor the brain’s frontal lobe, where concentration occurs, writes Patrick George for Jalopnik. Stinson reports that the headset has 14 EGS sensors that measure overall brain activity, of which eight are focused on the frontal lobe.

Emotive CEO Geoff Mackellar told Wired that the most interesting aspect of the project was that, in looking at the data as it was appearing, he could tell when a driver was about to become distracted. Stinson writes:

The headset and machine learning were about to be distracted even before you grabbed your phone to send a text. ‘I was surprised that we could detect the level of intention to do something,’ [Mackellar] says.

Wired emphasizes that no one expects this vehicle to work as a real-life solution to distracted driving, for various reasons. Besides the fact that most drivers would not want to wear the headsets, “it’s enormously dangerous to abruptly slow down a fast moving vehicle surrounded by other fast moving vehicles,” Stinson writes. But she points out that the APC was never intended as a consumer product.

However, the project is already sparking a lot of discussion on how to prevent distracted driving (as evidenced by comments posted by readers of the Jalopnik article), and Mackellar hopes the APC will someday be used as an educational tool. Stinson finds some humor in this prospect: “Drivers Ed teachers everywhere are bracing for whiplash.’

Here is a video about the Attention Powered Car:

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