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Crime-Stopping Cars of the Future

New computer technology could prevent hijacking, drunk driving, and high-speed chases.


Google’s self-driving robot cars are pretty exciting; so are the predictions that cars could someday be powered by hydrogen, or made out of fiberglass, or water-repellant glass, or whatever else. But some of the weirdest technology that scientists are developing for the cars of the future could actually prevent car-related crime.

For instance, a group of engineers, led by Pak Kin Wong at the Department of Electromechanical Engineering at the University of Macau, are working on a mathematical model for technology that could stop a car from the outside. (Algorithms that allow criminals to break into and hot-wired cars also already exist, incidentally, but that’s another story.)

Today, if law enforcement wants to catch a criminal driving a car, it has to chase that car down. If the military wants to stop a suspected car bomber that has broken through a checkpoint, it usually just shoots at it. These researchers, in a new article in the International Journal of Vehicle Design, described a system that would more gradually but forcefully slow a car down, without having to wreck the car or kill everyone inside.

Isao Nakanishi and his colleagues describe a system that can identify and verify a driver through the unique EEG signals in his or her brain.

This work on a “intelligent vehicle-arrest system” is still theoretical at this point. But another type of technology, which is already past the experimental phase, is a system that stops a car from the inside, if someone who is not “pre-approved” tries to drive it.

Another team of engineers, based at Tottori University in Japan, is working on a system that protects cars from theft by actually measuring the driver’s brain waves. Car keys can always be stolen, after all. Even high-tech vehicle protection of the future, like fingerprint- or iris-scanning, would only allow for one-time authentication at the beginning of a drive—that wouldn’t help in the case of a carjacking or kidnapping.

Isao Nakanishi and his colleagues, writing in the impressively-titled article “Using Brain Waves as Transparent Biometrics for on-Demand Driver Authentication” in the forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Biometrics, describe a system that can identify and verify a driver through the unique EEG signals in his or her brain.

"Brain waves are generated by the neural activities in the cerebral cortex; therefore, it is hidden in the body and cannot be bypassed," says the team of engineers. (Another group of researchers in India is simultaneously working on a brain-wave-authentication system for regular computer users.)

Another promising aspect of this new driver-authentication tool is that, since it works by measuring the driver’s brain waves throughout the trip and comparing it to the car owner’s “normal” brain waves, it could also help detect when a driver is intoxicated or over-tired. When the brain waves don’t match up—either because the driver is not the approved person or because the brain activity is markedly different for some other reason—the car’s engine would stop, or fail to start at all.

The authors of the paper envision that this system would only be used for the really important and valuable vehicles, like armored cars or those that transport weapons, for instance. Which makes sense, because some downsides for everyday use come to mind. One is the fact that it involves driving with unwieldy headgear; another is the potential danger (or at least frustration) of banking your ability to drive to work in the morning on the same type of technology that gave us the frozen-Mac spinning-rainbow-wheel. If something goes wrong, I don’t know any car mechanic that can look under that hood.