WSJ – Cross-Posted at AskMarion: What the car of the near future will sense about your biology. Auto makers are researching technology that could feed your heart rate, blood pressure and other biometric responses into the car's computers, the better to determine when you're drowsy or overwhelmed with distracting media. MIT researcher Bryan Reimer and WSJ's Joe White has details on Lunch Break. See Video
A Car That Takes Your Pulse
Designing Vehicles To Monitor Brain Waves, Sleepiness
Could a car that knows when you are stressed or ill save you from having an accident? Auto makers are stepping up efforts to find out.
A number of big car manufacturers are accelerating research into equipping vehicles with so-called biometric sensors that would keep tabs on a driver's vital health signs, including pulse, breathing and "skin conductance," aka sweaty palms. When that information is fed into the computers that manage a car's safety systems, it could enable a vehicle to better react to whatever challenges the road and traffic dish out.
The move comes amid major advances in mobile medical-monitoring technology, as well as growing concerns about meeting the needs of an aging and increasingly distracted population of motorists.
It also reflects another step in the industry's broader move toward self-driving cars, a brave new world in which computers could all but eliminate the potential for driver error—whether it's due to a distracting phone call or a sudden drop in blood sugar.
Already, some Lexus models use in-cabin cameras and some Mercedes-Benz vehicles have steering sensors to detect drowsy-driving behavior. The cars sound a warning beep or flash a coffee-cup icon to suggest that it's time for a break. Luxury brands are promoting these accident-avoidance technologies as examples of what sets their expensive vehicles apart from cheaper, mainstream models. The Mercedes system, called Attention Assist, comes as standard equipment in a wide range of its vehicles, from the smaller C-class sedans to the more opulent, and high-tech, S-class models.
Separately, car makers and federal safety regulators are working on in-vehicle systems that could reliably detect when someone is too drunk to drive.
The new body monitors could, if a driving hazard appeared imminent, trigger the car's safety systems to tap the brakes, turn off a radio, block a cellphone from ringing or take other actions. Some of these advances may be in cars in three to five years. Others depend upon whether researchers can crack the challenge of designing health-related sensors that can work flawlessly in a vehicle for up to a decade.
Sports car maker Ferrari SpA, for one, has filed a patent application that indicates the company is evaluating technology that would embed wireless electrodes in a car seat's headrest to monitor drivers' brain waves for stress as they pilot machines capable of roaring up to 200 miles per hour. Depending on what the sensors detect, the car might try to mitigate the driver's risk by cutting power to the motor or automatically stabilizing the vehicle. As Ferrari researchers put it in the patent filing: "drivers tend to miscalculate—in particular, overestimate—their driving skill and, more important, their psychophysical condition."
At Ford Motor Co., F +1.26%researchers are looking at connecting information from medical monitors, like seat-belt-based respiration sensors and steering-wheel heart-rate trackers, to its cars' in-dash multimedia systems.
Ford's prototype system aims to lessen distraction by taking readouts from biometric sensors and combining the data with information from the car, including speed, steering-wheel angle, and data from radar sensors or cameras used in blind-spot obstacle detection or cruise control. All the data are run through software that can gauge the driver's overall stress level. If it is high, the system could automatically engage a "Do Not Disturb" function for the driver's phone.
Jeff Greenberg, a senior technical leader involved with the Ford research, says the broad goal is to minimize driver distraction and stress. This may involve keeping people engaged and alert on a boring drive to work or helping them stay focused in more difficult driving moments. If a truck looms out of the blind spot during a high-speed freeway merge, for example, a driver would be better off if his phone's ringer was disabled at that moment, he says.
Mr. Greenberg says phone-disabling technology could come to showrooms "relatively quickly." Adding the biometric sensors, he says, "is further out." Ford classifies those technologies as research projects that typically are at least three to five years from being offered to consumers.
One reason: The technology is evolving faster than issues such as medical privacy and regulatory oversight can be resolved. Ford, like other auto makers, is loath to add the Food and Drug Administration to an already heavy regulatory load.
Car makers hope that vehicles with medical monitors will appeal to an aging population that wants to keep driving.
"If we want to keep people in their vehicles, it's key we integrate systems to support them," says Bryan Reimer, a researcher with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, which focuses on innovations for an aging population. AgeLab has worked with Toyota Motor Corp., 7203.TO -1.56%Ford and other companies to test how biometric sensors could be used both to guide the design of vehicles to make them easier to operate and as onboard systems to help people drive more safely.
A number of big car manufacturers are accelerating research into equipping vehicles with so-called biometric sensors that would keep tabs on a driver's vital health signs.
Dick Myrick, a 63-year-old retired electrical engineer from Arlington, Mass., participated in AgeLab experiments in biometrically monitored driving. His says he would be interested in a car that kept tabs on his condition as part of its safety technology, but only if he was in control of the system. "I need to know that the function is on, and have it not on when I want," he says.
Others see the new technology as yet another thing to keep track of behind the wheel. It's "a further distraction" for drivers, says Gabrielle Lucci, 60, a Farmington Hills, Mich., retiree.
Devices that collect data about an individual's physical condition are getting cheaper and smaller. Many are designed to connect to smartphones using the same Bluetooth technology that connects smartphones to cars. This provides a gateway for wirelessly connecting devices like glucose or heart monitors into a car's multimedia displays.
"The same sensor you are wearing for your weekend warrior stuff…is the sensor you could slap on your mother" to monitor her heart, says Leslie Saxon, a cardiologist who leads the University of Southern California's Center for Body Computing. Dr. Saxon's project recently formed a research alliance with German luxury car maker BMW BMW.XE +0.72% AG.
Daniel Grein, a BMW designer, says the USC research could help determine how to connect a Bluetooth-equipped blood-sugar monitor to future BMW models. In Munich, he says, BMW engineers are also investigating how to design a car that could automatically stop if the driver suffered a heart attack.
Dr. Saxon says he sees a time when biometric monitors in a car could feed data, not just to onboard safety systems, but also to doctors and patients looking to better manage health care. "My car calls me when it needs something," Dr. Saxon says, referring to vehicle-service alerts generated by the car. "I want patients' cars to call them when they need blood-pressure medicine."
Sound interesting? Might increase safety? But as Founding Father Benjamin Franklin said, “He who trades security (or safety) for freedom" usually gets (nor deserves) either!!” Wake-up America, Europe, Christians, Patriots, lovers of freedom… this is Big Brother 1984 style all the way! Today it is a smart car… tomorrow it will be a smart card. Be sure to watch the video below and then you be the judge!
Video: Smart card (made 2005)