The future of driving could involve wearing a skullcap covered in electrodes and wires.

If that doesn’t sound very appealing, here’s the cool bit: the skullcap can track brain-wave activity and transmit its readings to steering, acceleration and braking systems, meaning that the car will respond before a driver is able to take physical action.

A skullcap tracks your brain activity and transmits it to your car’s autonomous systems
Image: Nissan

Japanese car maker Nissan will unveil this brain-to-vehicle (B2V) technology – believed to be the first of its kind in the world – at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month.

Nissan will demonstrate the technology using its IMx electric concept car. People from the audience will simulate driving on a highway for a few minutes, and the car should make adjustments in real time.

B2V is the latest development in Nissan Intelligent Mobility, the company’s vision for transforming how cars are driven, powered and integrated into society. B2V is both a part of – and very different from – the shift towards self-driving cars.

Half a second faster

“When most people think about autonomous driving, they have a very impersonal vision of the future, where humans relinquish control to the machines. Yet B2V technology does the opposite, by using signals from their own brain to make the drive even more exciting and enjoyable,” said Daniele Schillaci, head of global sales and marketing and Nissan’s Zero Emission Vehicle and Battery Business.

“Through Nissan Intelligent Mobility, we are moving people to a better world by delivering more autonomy, more electrification and more connectivity.”

Nissan uses brain decoding technology to predict a driver’s actions
Image: Nissan

This is what B2V actually does. The driver wears a device that measures brain-wave activity, which is then analysed by autonomous systems. By anticipating intended movements, the car’s systems can take actions, such as turning the steering wheel, slowing down or speeding up. The vehicle starts those actions 0.2 to 0.5 seconds sooner than the driver is physically able to. So while the driver still brakes or steers in the normal fashion, the car will have already initiated the desired action a split second previously.

The breakthrough from Nissan is the result of research into using brain decoding technology to predict a driver’s actions and to detect discomfort. The driver’s brain activity tells autonomous systems when a movement is about to be initiated. The technology can also detect and evaluate driver discomfort and change the driving configuration accordingly when in autonomous mode.

Faster reactions make driving safer, while preserving the enjoyment and experience of driving. There are other applications for the technology as well. The mining company BHP Billiton already uses a small device inside its drivers’ helmets to monitor brain activity and detect any signs of fatigue, aiming to prevent truck drivers nodding off at the wheel and making a potentially catastrophic mistake.

Image: IHS Markit

The market for autonomous vehicles is expected to expand rapidly over the next 20-30 years, but many drivers, regulators and legislators are still very wary of handing over control. Market analysts IHS Markit expect 21 million autonomous vehicles to be sold annually by 2035 – equivalent to about a quarter of all current vehicle sales.

Driver-assist technologies, such as adaptive cruise control and automatic braking systems, are becoming commonplace in new cars. But Nissan’s Daniele Schillaci says its B2V technology could help drivers to adjust to fully autonomous cars, by allowing them to build up a trusting relationship with their car.

But if the idea of self-driving cars causes anxiety, allowing a third party to monitor your brainwaves also raises concerns over privacy.

The ethics will be fiercely debated as the technology advances further and people ask how the data gathered from B2V systems will be collected, stored and used.