Your Car as Stress Monitor?

There has been an increasing push to warn drivers—especially young drivers—about the dangers of driving while fatigued. A AAA Foundation survey published earlier this month found that “one in seven licensed drivers ages 16-24 admitted to having nodded off at least once while driving in the past year as compared to one in ten of all licensed drivers who confessed to falling asleep during the same period.”

Safety studies (using admittedly sparse data) estimate that from15 percent to 33 percent of fatal accidents in the U.S. may be due to drowsy drivers (pdf). That risk was highlighted by recent story in the Sidney Morning Herald, which reported that University of New South Wales researchers had found that driver fatigue led to nearly twice as many crashes in NSW last year as drunk driving did.

Automotive manufacturers have now taken note of this risk (the military has done so for a while) and are researching ways to use information from embedded biometric sensors to “keep tabs on a driver's vital health signs, including pulse, breathing and 'skin conductance,' aka sweaty palms" and thereby detect, among other things, the alertness of drivers, a story in the Wall Street Journal reports. Some luxury car models already have sensor devices to detect drowsy drivers. For instance, “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.”

In addition, the WSJ article says that manufacturers are exploring ways of monitoring a range of drivers’ vital signs that would be combined with other car sensor information to determine the level of driver stress.The car might react to a high stress level by ensuring your cell phone doesn't ring or even, in a particularly severe case, by reducing power to the engine.

BMW going even further and is looking at how to “connect Bluetooth-equipped blood-sugar monitors to future BMW models,” as well as looking at “how to design a car that could automatically stop if the driver suffered a heart attack,” the WSJ also reports. Researchers working with BMW see a time when a vehicle’s biometric sensor system will communicate “not just to onboard safety systems, but also to doctors and patients looking to better manage health care.”

One of the BMW researchers who is also a doctor noted that cars already inform drivers when they need repairing, so why not have cars that can tell when drivers themselves need repair? “My car calls me when it needs something," he was quoted as saying. "I want patients' cars to call them when they need blood-pressure medicine.”

Early last week there was a related story at Phys.org on the work being done by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) in conjunction with PSA Peugeot Citroën to develop techniques of determining a driver’s state through the use of facial recognition software. One of the directors of the effort said that, “Our goal is to build the technological base to detect and situate a driver's face at any moment in time. Using this tool, it will then be possible to build and test various driver assistance applications such as eye tracking, fatigue detection, lip reading, and so on.”

To be honest, I am not sure I want a car which nags me about my blood-pressure, or complains about my colorful language when I get cut off in rush hour traffic. I get enough of that already at home.

Photo: iStockphoto

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