How your car knows if you'll have a heart attack

Scientists at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen created a sensor system that can detect the vital signs of the driver to help the car understand what it needs to do in stressful situations.

If Google has its way, cars will be driving themselves. But there are other ways to keep the roads safe other than trying to eliminate human drivers completely. One way is to turn the steering wheel into a digital nurse. By checking the driver's health status, scientists hope that by baking sensors into the steering wheel, the car can monitor the driver's vital signs to better understand what it needs to do to minimize risk.

Scientists at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen developed a sensor that can trigger the car to respond to situations on the road.

"Our vision is to get the vehicle to detect when the driver is no longer feeling well and to the initiate appropriate measures," Muenchen's professor Tim Lueth said in a statement.

The sensors in the steering wheel can measure vital signs of the driver. Heart rate. Check. Stress. Check. Blood pressure. Check. While the system can be used to check for vital signs, it may also be used to detect more serious conditions like a heart attack.

"When a stress situation is detected by means of skin conductance values, phone calls can be blocked, for instance, or the volume of the radio turned down automatically. With more serious problems the system could turn on the hazard warning lights, reduce the speed or even induce automated emergency braking," Lueth said.

How it works

Using commercially available sensors, TUM researchers worked with scientists at BMW Group on the project. In the study, the sensors picked up the vital signs 80 percent of the driving time.

The first sensor shines infrared light onto the fingers to collect heart rate data and oxygen saturation flowing in the blood. Another sensor checks the skin for its conductance to tell if the driver is under stress. Since the sensors are built into the steering wheel, drivers don't have to get all wired up for their health check up. The data is automatically sent back to the vehicle.

Cars as computers

Cars are becoming more complex - some are written with 100 million lines of code, which is the equivalent of 30 computers on wheels.

So far, sensors built into cars have mostly been used to help with navigation and in general, have been more focused on helping the driver understand the needs of the car - not the other way around. Having a vision to check the health status of the driver completes that feedback loop, and may help control the car so it can react more accurately to the conditions on the road.

Safety in numbers

Here's a look at the estimated road traffic death, according to The World Health Organization:

via Eurekalert

Photo: screenshot from The World Health Organization

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