Just days after completing its most disappointing Formula One season for a decade, McLaren is already looking towards a brighter future – with a car which can be controlled by the driver's brain. The MP4-X concept also includes advanced safety and performance technologies closer to a fighter jet than a race car.
Although in profile the car looks vaguely similar to today's F1 racers, the MP4-X features a canopy to protect the driver from being hit by debris and other cars. Formula One and other open-cockpit race series have seen too many incidents with drivers being hit on the head in recent years, something Woking-based McLaren hopes the canopy will change.
As well as providing protection, the canopy is hydrophobic to keep water off it, and automatically tints to stop the driver being blinded by bright sunlight. Other safety features include a suit which contains multiple bio sensors and the ability to display areas of impact trauma or injury, helping medical teams assess the driver's condition after a crash.
But the most exciting feature of the MP4-X is how the car connects to the driver's brain. McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT), which built the concept, is calling this feature "cognitive human-machine interface, gesture control and brain synaptic control". In English, this means the car can read what is on the driver's mind and send this information back to his team in the pits, which is particularly useful during corners or when the driver is battling with an opponent – both times when speaking is difficult.
A car which can read your brain
Jim Newton, market development director of MAT, told Wired: "As a tactician and strategist, to know what's on the driver's mind at that time might help you in more tactical thinking, and then help you optimise how you communicate with the driver...To understand to some degree what the driver was thinking without having to communicate verbally may be a considerable advantage." By reading the driver's brain patterns, his team could adjust how the car is performing, or alter the digital head-up display to show information more relevant to that moment.
Inside, the driver wears a head-mounted augmented vision system, giving him a 360-degree view of his surroundings and even allows him to see through crash barriers or behind them. There is also a visual gesture control system, which lets the driver change settings with his eyes, and a holographic instrument panel.
While a brain-reading car with holograms sounds like the work of science fiction, some features of the MP4-X are already a reality. Active Air Flow is one such technology, which uses electrodes fitted to the surface of the car's wings. By adjusting the electrical charge sent to them, the aerodynamic friction of the surface – and therefore how much drag and downforce the car generates – can be changed while on the move. This process turns the air around the wings into plasma.
Geoff McGrath, chief innovation chief at MAT, explained: "Plasma flow control would require quite a lot of power, but, in the future, we could take power from the engine and divert it to charge the system. It's banned in current F1 regulations – but it's great for achieving high top speeds, particularly at circuits like Monza, where you want to shed all the downforce along the straights and then turn it back on again for the corners."
Some of the technologies seen here could well arrive in Formula One in the next year or two – and with high profile drivers like Jenson Button onboard, it seems almost certain that canopies, already seen on cars competing in the Le Mans series. will be introduced very soon. As for the other features of the MP4-X, their future will rest in the hands of Formula One officials and its governing body, the FIA.