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April 24, 2010

Driving With Your Eyes, Not Your Hands

If you are tired of turning your steering wheel left and right all day while on the road, here's something for you: New technology developed by German researchers that lets drivers steer their vehicles using only their eyes.

The new technology tracks a driver's eye movement and steers the car in whatever direction they are looking, according to Raul Rojas, an artificial intelligence researcher at Berlin's Free University.

Rojas and his team presented a prototype vehicle featuring the new technology at an airport in the German capital on Friday.

The vehicle, a Dodge Caravan, zig-zagged along the tarmac at the Templehof Airport as a driver, using only his line of sight, controlled the car. The steering wheel turned as if being guided by invisible hands.  The technology, called eyeDriver, lets the car go up to 31 mph.

"The next step will be to get it to drive 60 miles per hour," Rojas said. "The biggest challenge is of course to drive in a city with pedestrians and lots of obstacles," he told The Associated Press.

It is unclear when -- or if -- the technology will be commercialized as questions about safety and practicability abound. Driver distractions are a common occurrence on the road, so if the driver looks away for just a few seconds, what would happen then?

But researchers have an answer to distracted drivers. It is called "The Spirit of Berlin"; a autonomous car equipped with GPS navigation, cameras, lasers and scanners that allow the car to drive itself.

The car can do almost everything. Cameras and scanners allow the car to gather input and base decisions on the data obtained, and only requires the driver to give guidance at intersections. "The car stops at intersections and asks the driver for guidance on which road to take," researchers say. Using his eyes, he directs the car to begin driving again in the direction he is looking.

To demonstrate the vehicle's autonomy, Rojas jumped out in front of the Caravan -- which was going 10 mph -- and the vehicle immediately stopped as the cameras detected an obstacle in its path.

"I was lucky this time," Rojas said jokingly.

The eyeDriver system's key for functioning properly requires the driver to wear a helmet with one camera mounted on top of it that monitors the road, and a second one concentrated on the eye movements of the driver.

If a helmet doesn't appeal to you, researchers have an alternative: the iPhone. Last year the researchers presented technology that allows the Apple smartphone to control the car remotely.

"Autonomous driving systems may considerably change our mobility in the future," Rojas said.

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