On the Road Cover Story
cars.com On the Road Weekly Publication
1:05 PM EDT, November 2, 2011
Just as a prudent owner cares for their car via regular maintenance, tomorrow’s vehicles will be able to care for their drivers by helping them keep track of their medical conditions.
Engineers at Ford are developing a car seat that incorporates a heart rate monitor containing six embedded sensors to detect electrical impulses generated by the heart. This type of technology could not only be used to monitor drivers known to be at risk, but help identify potential heart problems.
“As always in medicine, the earlier a condition is detected the easier it is to treat and this technology even has the potential to be instrumental in diagnosing conditions drivers were previously unaware they had,” says Dr. Achim Lindner, a medical officer with Ford’s European Research and Innovation Centre.
Data collected by the sensors could be analyzed by onboard computer software or by medical experts via a mobile connection and be used to provide real-time health information and even warn the driver of imminent cardiovascular issues.
An aging population places more drivers behind the wheel that are at-risk for heart conditions and other health problems. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans 65 and older is projected to more than double by 2050, meaning there will be 88.5 million seniors on the road by mid-century.
“With increasing life expectancy meaning higher numbers of people and therefore drivers at risk of heart diseases, the ability to monitor hearts at the wheel could offer massive benefits in terms of health and road safety, both for the user and the wider public,” says Steffen Leonhardt, a professor at Germany's Rheinisch-Westfalische Technische Hochschule Aachen University who worked with Ford on the project. “The car is an obvious choice; it's a place where occupants spend long periods sitting in a rather calm position and a place that's increasingly less physically demanding, making it the ideal environment to measure heart activity.”
This would not be the first high-tech system developed to help keep an electric eye on drivers. Several Mercedes-Benz models now come with a system called Attention Assist that scrutinizes a car's steering-wheel input to determine if the driver is becoming fatigued and will sound an alert and illuminate a coffee cup icon on the dashboard to advise them to take a break. What’s more, the upscale Lexus LS 600h L hybrid sedan offers a collision mitigation system that monitors the driver's face with a cabin-mounted camera; it will automatically engage the brakes to avoid a potential collision with vehicles or pedestrians in the car’s path if it determines the driver is dozing off or is otherwise distracted.
For its part, Ford is also looking to expand its Sync voice-control multimedia system to incorporate health and wellness services that would be accessed wirelessly via smartphone apps and Internet services. Already, Ford is working with Medtronic, a manufacturer of glucose monitoring devices, to develop a system that would keep track of a driver’s blood sugar levels. An Allergy Alert app would give motorists access to location-based day-by-day index levels for pollen; asthma, cold and cough and ultraviolet sensitivity.
As if that's not enough, a driver could receive real-time in-car patient coaching, behavioral education and medication adherence support based on his or her specific medical profile.
For our part we’d settle for a feature that is still limited to high-end luxury cars – a massaging car seat.