Autopilot mode is impressive and everything, but what if you're the kind of person who still likes the act of driving a car? Not to worry: One day you might be able to drive a vehicle just with your mind.

A team of college students modified a Tesla so a person can do just that. Use your brain and the car will accelerate or brake--no pesky pedal-pushing necessary.

The project was part of Cal Hacks, a competition on UC Berkeley's campus from November 11 to 13. The group put an electroencephalogram (EEG) headset, which measures the brain's electrical activity, on the driver, according to science and tech publication Seeker. The driver's thoughts then caused the Model S to drive or stop.

For the driver, thinking about tapping his right foot corresponded with "go," and thinking about clenching his left hand meant "stop." A linear actuator--a mechanical rod that applies force--would apply pressure to the gas and remove pressure from the brake, or vice versa, depending on the command.

The students have a name for their invention: the Teslapathic.

Systems like this are examples of brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs. According to Jacob Jolij, assistant professor of neuroscience at England's University of Exeter, moving a right limb requires activity from the left side of the brain and vice versa, which can be easily detected using an EEG headset. A computer can then convert the activity into commands.

"The challenge, however, is to make them fast and reliable," Jolij says. While current technology allows the commands to be measured with around 99 percent accuracy, that number is pretty low when applied to driving: Imagine if once every 100 times you wanted to brake, you hit the gas instead.

"It's good to realize it's still in the 'gimmick' stage, and that we should not expect brain-driven cars anytime soon," Jolij says. Where he does see application in the near future is in BCIs that can provide steering assistance to the driver, or detect when he or she is becoming too tired to drive.

Earlier this week, GM announced that it's introducing facial recognition software that can notice when a driver is falling asleep or not paying attention to the road. A series of alerts will go off with the intention of snapping the driver back to focus.

It's hard to say whether mind-controlled driving will ever become a mainstream feature, or if it would be any safer than Tesla's own fully autonomous driving, which is set to roll out next year. But it's fascinating to see the technology in development--especially from a group of college students.

Teams in the competition had 36 hours to complete their projects from start to finish. The Teslapathic clearly had some stiff competition: It finished third behind teams that created a malware blocker for internet of things devices (first place) and a virtual reality platform (second place).

Published on: Nov 30, 2016