Chinese researchers co-designed a brain-reading device that allows users to drive forward, backwards, come to a stop, and lock and unlock the vehicle, without using their hands or feet. (Reuters)

Chinese researchers have developed what they say is a car that uses nothing but brainpower to drive.

A research team from Nankai University in Tianjin has spent two years bringing a mind-controlled vehicle to reality.

By wearing equipment that reads brain signals, drivers can make the car go forward, go backward and come to a stop, as well as lock and unlock the vehicle, all without moving their hands or feet.

Researcher Zhang Zhao said the equipment consists of 16 sensors that capture EEG (electroencephalogram) signals from the driver’s brain. His team developed a computer program that selects the relevant signals and translates them, allowing the operator to control the car.

“The tester’s EEG signals are picked up by this equipment and transmitted wirelessly to the computer,” Zhang said. “The computer processes the signals to categorize and recognize people’s intention, then translates them into control command to the car. The core of the whole flow is to process the EEG signals, which is done on the computer.”

Duan Feng, an associate professor in the university’s College of Computer and Control Engineering, led the project. He said it may soon be possible to combine brain-controlled technology with innovations such as the self-driving vehicle being developed by Google.

“Driverless cars’ further development can bring more benefits to us, since we can better realize functions relating to brain controlling with the help of the driverless cars’ platform,” Duan said. “In the end, cars, whether driverless or not, and machines are serving for people. Under such circumstances, people’s intentions must be recognized. In our project, it makes the cars better serve human beings.”

Duan said worries that accidents might be caused by drivers who become distracted while using the car’s brain controls were unfounded because concentration would be needed only when changing lanes or turning. Whether drivers can be persuaded to get behind the wheel and control a car with their mind is far from certain, though.

The researchers say their idea was inspired by helping disabled people unable to steer cars.

“There are two starting points of this project,” Zhang said. “The first one is to provide a driving method without using hands or feet for the disabled who are unable to move freely; and secondly, to provide healthy people with a new and more intellectualized driving mode.”

At present, the vehicle, being developed in collaboration with Chinese car manufacturer Great Wall Motor, can drive only forward or backward. There are no plans to put it into production.

— Reuters