When it comes to dangers on the road, we’re going to guess you immediately think of people who aren’t paying attention because they are texting while driving, distracted by who knows what or the like. What probably doesn’t come to mind at first is that the driver next to you could suddenly suffer a heart attack. You’re welcome for that ray of sunshine today.
But there is indeed a bright spot: Engineers at Ford have developed a prototype car seat that uses electrocardiograph (ECG) technology to monitor the heart’s electrical impulses and detect signs of irregularity, resulting in an early warning that a driver should seek medical assistance, such as for a heart attack, high blood pressure, electrolyte imbalances or other cardiovascular issue.
Now, don’t imagine having to add 15 minutes to your commute in order to attach metal electrodes all over your skin before you can start the engine. Rather, this ECG seat has six built-in sensors that can detect heart activity through clothing. The sensors pick up the electrical impulses generated by the heart, turning them into signals that can be analyzed by medical experts or computer software.
Engineers from the Ford European Research Center in Aachen, Germany, working closely since 2009 with Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule, Aachen University, which developed contactless ECG technology, embarked on the project to address this often overlooked traffic safety issue – accidents triggered by drivers who experience heart problems.
Research by the Impaired Motorists, Methods of Roadside Testing and Assessment for Licensing project, a three-year European Union research program, found that drivers suffering from cardiovascular disease were, on average, 23 percent more likely to be involved in an accident. For drivers who suffered from angina, this figure grew to 52 percent.
Yet you’re probably thinking, when you’ve seen people in a movie having a heart episode, they’re not exactly calm, cool or collected, so you figure in the real world, a driver wouldn’t put on a turn signal, check for traffic and maneuver gracefully to the side of the road. Here’s where things get even more interesting: Ford is also testing the prototype seat to understand how it could work with other advanced systems within Ford vehicles to warn a driver to pull over and seek medical attention, possibly mitigating the consequences of a driver losing control, or even send out an alert to emergency medical workers if necessary. Connected to a system such as Ford SYNC® with MyFord Touch™, the seat potentially could use the driver’s mobile phone to send a message to medical centers, alerting doctors to irregular heart activity. The seat also could be linked through SYNC to inform emergency response teams of the driver’s heart condition before, during and after an accident.
Engineers also are studying how the seat might be used to observe heart patients and allow doctors to maintain a record of heart activity that could be transmitted to medical professionals and reduce the need for visits to the hospital.
In early tests, the heart-monitoring seat has recorded accurate readings during 98 percent of driving time for 95 percent of drivers. Ford research engineers are continuing to study how sensors can be made to record signals through a greater number of materials including those that interrupt readings with their own electrical activity. The technology could initially be of most benefit to drivers known to have heart conditions, primarily those in more mature age groups.