Researchers at Intel are hoping a little insight into the way drivers think as they hurtle down the highway can be harnessed to make roads safer.
The company is using a brain scanning technique called functional near infrared spectroscopy to attempt to differentiate between those times when a driver is focused on the road ahead and when his or her thoughts are occupied with other things.
"We're trying to understand people better, what they're thinking, what they're feeling," said Paul Crawford, a senior research scientist at Intel Labs who is working on the project at the company's Silicon Valley research center. He said the research builds on the sizeable amount of work that has already been done on how people interact with computers and machines such as cars.
"We want to understand cognitive workload, how hard someone is having to work to do something," he said.
In a demonstration in San Francisco on Tuesday, the company showed how it is measuring the brain activity of a driver sitting at a simulator. The driver is navigating a virtual Formula One car around a racetrack at 50 miles per hour in one test, and at more than 250 mph in another test.
Infrared sensors fitted to a cap over the driver's head sensed activity in the outermost 2 centimeters of the driver's brain. By measuring differences between the two drives, researchers start to be able to tell the difference between intense concentration — when the race car is being driven at top speed —and the much-reduced amount needed at lower speeds.
"When you're driving, sometimes you're looking at the road and paying attention, and sometimes you're looking at the road and you're not paying attention. There are some subtle differences there that I hope, and I hypothesize, we can tease out," said Crawford.
That information could one day be fed into a car's computer, which might make adjustments to the environmental controls to keep the driver more alert, or give more or less control to safety features such as automatic braking or lane control.
"With that information, we can say 'maybe they need some additional stimulation, maybe we [change the radio station], maybe we dial up or down the amount of control, maybe we pull you off the car in front of you a little bit," he said.
Road-related injuries are the eighth-leading cause of death in the world and the number-one killer of people between 15 and 29 years of age, according to the World Health Organization. Road accidents killed about 1.24 million people in 2010, the latest year for which global figures are available.
Intel's research is initially focused on cars, but it goes beyond the highway.
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.