As automakers race to develop driverless cars, an Australian technology company has developed a tool to bring the man back into the loop: an interface that measures the attention of the human driver, and makes adjustments accordingly.

In a partnership with the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia, electronics company Emotiv offers a car equipped with a matching headset designed to reduce the frequency of highway crashes caused by inattention. Twenty percent of Australian drivers involved in crashes say they were looking directly ahead at the time of the crash, but distraction led to a lack of comprehension of events around them.

"The brain is basically an attention machine," Geoffrey Mackellar, CEO of Emotiv Research and Emotiv Lifesciences, told Wired magazine. "The front part of the brain has to be active and very much involved in driving because the subconscious brain doesn't know that driving out of a lane is going to cause a problem."

The so-called “Attention Powered Car” features a headset, the EPOC, which measures electrical activity in the brain to assess the driver’s focus while on the road. Should the driver’s attention wander, the headset signals custom software installed in the car to slow the vehicle as a way of regaining attention. The customized Hyundai i40 only runs at full speed when the driver fully focuses on the task, linking machine performance to driver attention.

Pat Walker, the executive general manager of the automobile club, testified to the need for such automation. Throughout the country, driver inattention contributes to 46 percent of fatal crashes, a rate comparable to the number of deaths and serious injuries incurred by speeding and drunk driving, he said.

"Inattention is something all of us can relate to, those times our mind wanders, we turn around and talk to our kids in the back,” Walker said. “We're keen to encourage all of us to think about the way we drive and that's why this project is very important to us."

Although just a prototype, the Attention Powered Car serves to call attention to the problem, and may spur other developers to invest time and money on the safety problem. Already, technology researchers are using the vehicle system to test how various distractions, such as car radios or text-messaging, affects a driver’s focus on the roadway. Aside from measuring electrical activity in the brain, researchers continue to study such physiological indications as head movement, eye movement, blink rate, and duration.

Emotiv’s team of researchers continues to improve the headset and software. The latest version features a six-axis inertial sensor comprised of a three-axis gyroscope along with a three-axis accelerometer, which measures eye movement, blinking, and tilting motions of the head. Although sideways head movements may obviously indicate distracted attention, researchers say recognizing cognitive inattention — such as daydreaming — requires a bit more sophistication.

Any distraction whatsoever represents a danger on the roadway, according to Lisa Jefferies, a Ph.D. psychology student at Murdoch University, who is working on the project. "The fact is that you cannot do more than one thing at a time usually, you are in fact switching from one to the other," Jefferies said. "And every time you switch, there's a cost."