What If Your Future Car Was Hooked Up to Your Brain?

What if your car was an extension of yourself? Neuroscience, art, and engineering combine to give us a glimpse of that future.

LACMA Art + Technology Lab grant recipient Jonathon Keats demonstrates the Roadable Synapse. / © Museum Associates/LACMA
LACMA Art + Technology Lab grant recipient Jonathon Keats demonstrates the Roadable Synapse. / © Museum Associates/LACMA


With all the attention and money invested into autonomous cars in the past few years, we may have started to take for granted that the future belongs to driverless vehicles. Jonathon Keats is not so quick to succumb to this assumption. Instead, he asks, “What if the future of the car is not driverless?” 

In 2015 Keats, who is an artist, writer and experimental philosopher, received a grant from LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab to explore how wearable technology affects the identity of the wearer. He took the assignment to the domain of the automobile to imagine what the future of the car would look like if the car became a wearable. In other words, instead of a future where artificial intelligence diminishes our connection with the car, Keats imagines a scenario where the connection becomes stronger and even more personal by neuroscientifically linking the internal workings of the vehicle to the driver’s own internal body state.

Keats describes this car as “a cognitive and emotional extension of ourselves. On the road, the driver and car will operate as a physically and mentally unified man-machine hybrid. Driving will become safer, less stressful and more natural. The car will become driverful.”

With support from Hyundai Motor Company, Keats paired with engineer Ryan Ayler to explore what manifesting this idea would look like. After two years of research and development they created the first version of a fully operating prototype called Roadable Synapse. 


Roadable Synapse prototype / © Museum Associates/LACMA

Working from the principle that the car should be the driver’s body and the driver should be the car’s mind, the duo used a variety of sensors to translate the vehicle’s speed, power, aerodynamics, and driving efficiency into auditory cues that create particular sensations in the driver.

The speed, for example, is conveyed by increasing or decreasing the tempo of the music the driver is listening to. This alters the driver’s perception of time, based on the psychological phenomenon that people perceive time to move more slowly when emotionally aroused by stimulating music. From the driver’s perspective, more seems to happen within a given time increment, equivalent to the fact that the car covers more distance when traveling more swiftly.

The Roadable Synapse from LACMA on Vimeo.

Engine RPM is conveyed to the driver as a function of the volume of music being played on the stereo. The aerodynamic profile of the moving vehicle is experienced by the driver through adjustment of music balance on the right and left speakers. Driving efficiency is conveyed through the ratio of signal to noise, as driving becomes less efficient, the music is distorted to become noisier, demanding more listening effort on the part of the driver.

The next-generation Roadable Synapse will further integrate the experiences of car and driver via interoception. Interoception is the sense we have for all aspects of the physiological condition of our body including feelings like pain, temperature, itch, sensual touch, thirst and hunger.

Keats plans to use external devices that will help simulate a feeling of hunger in the driver as the fuel runs low. Rumbling of the stomach will be stimulated by a vibrating mechanism attached to the seatbelt, while another device will regulate the temperature of the abdomen to induce greater appetite through gradual cooling.

With the Roadable Synapse, Keats explores how other existing technologies, besides AI, could affect the future of the car, like the cyborg future of wearables, neuroprostheses and brain-computer interfaces. He says: 

I don't see a cyborg future as better or worse than the AI-driven future of driverless cars. But I think it's essential that we be able to get outside the assumptions that the future of driving will be autonomous, in order to individually and collectively decide what we really want. And that's not only true for cars, but for technology more broadly. By presenting the antithesis of the self-driving car, I hope to facilitate a new synthesis that encompasses the best of these two possibilities and ideally opens up the transportation sector to other options as well. 

The Roadable Synapse is on display at LACMA beginning August 17, 2017.

What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
Keep reading Show less

Coffee and green tea may lower death risk for some adults

Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.


Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
  • This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
  • The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.
Keep reading Show less

Why San Francisco felt like the set of a sci-fi flick

But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.

Brittany Hosea-Small / AFP / Getty Images
Surprising Science

On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.

Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

America of the 1930s saw thousands of people become Nazi

Nazi supporters held huge rallies and summer camps for kids throughout the United States in the 1930s.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast