Technology 4 min read

Why Your Car Needs a Nervous System

Dmitry Kalinovsky |

Dmitry Kalinovsky |

The U.S. Army is funding a research project aimed at equipping vehicles, helicopters, and tanks with a “nervous system” that can sense damage and provide warnings.

Responsible for sending, receiving, and treating all nerve impulses, the nervous system is one of the most central systems in the human body.

Human and animal nervous systems collect “pain” data using sensory receptors and send the information to the brain. In a similar fashion, cars of the future, in addition to being green and self-driving, could use an array of advanced sensors that enable them to feel and sense damage.

The U.S. Army is funding research into vehicle nervous systemsClick To Tweet

Do Cars Need to “Feel Pain”?

If you think that the “inability to feel pain” makes for a good superpower, you’re wrong; if we were insensitive to pain, we could wreck our bodies almost immediately.

There is a rare disease known as congenital analgesia which prevents patients from feeling any nerve sensation. CIP patients, especially children, can severely hurt or injure themselves without ever feeling or knowing about it.

The central self-protective mechanism of the body is physical and emotional pain. Though unpleasant even at its lowest levels, pain serves as a natural alarm system that prevents a condition or an injury from worsening.

That’s why autonomous vehicles (and robots) could “use some pain”. Mystery dents may become a thing of the past as your future car logs and stores every incident and “feeling” that it ever experiences.

Scientists at Clemson University (South Carolina) are working on a “smart skin” that could be incorporated into the body of a vehicle to enable it to feel damage.

This smart skin will most likely be expensive at first but it would streamline the maintenance and repair process and cut costs significantly as the damage is detected almost immediately long before it gets worse.

This, in turn, would gradually reduce the cost of maintenance and repairs on vehicles over a longer period of time.

Before such a system is integrated into cars, it will first accommodate military aircraft, tanks, and other vehicles as the research is funded by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL).

Smart Skin for Vehicles to Feel and Relay Pain

ARL gave Dr. Oliver J. Myers, an associate professor at Clemson Mechanical Engineering, $1 million ($993,492 to be exact) to develop a smart skin for vehicles to sense and relay damage.

The key to this smart skin is a magnetostrictive material that, by reacting to changes in a magnetic field, can detect impacts, cracks, and an abnormal physical stress.

“The idea is that magnetically sensitive material would be embedded within the smart material throughout the vehicle and act as a sensor that says, “Ouch! We have damage here,” said Professor Myers. “Lieutenant Data in ‘Star Trek’ always says, ‘I’m performing to specified parameters.’ We want to make sure our platforms are performing to those specified parameters at a minimum.”

This magnetostrictive material is incorporated directly into the structure itself during the manufacturing process. It could thus provide vehicles with real-time self-diagnostic ability without the need for externally-embedded sensors that require extra work and costs.

According to Dr. Myeres, the system is 10 to 20 years away from commercialization, but they are on the way to creating a robust sensing system that’s “observable, repeatable, measurable and sustainable”.

Do you think vehicles should be created to feel pain? Or do you think it might overstep the ethical boundaries of what it is to be a machine? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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