Mary Lou Jay
German researchers are working to install heart-monitoring systems into vehicles that could alert drivers who are about to have a heart attack.
The hope is that forewarned drivers pull over to the side of the road and call for help before they suffer cardiac arrest and lose control of their vehicle, injuring or killing themselves or others.
Ford Motor Company and BMW are poised to be the first automakers to use this technology.
Scientists at one German university, Technische Universitaet Muenchen, have been working with BMW on a vital-signs sensor that's embedded into a vehicle's steering wheel. Using infrared light, this sensor monitors heart rate, stress levels and blood pressure on a continual basis. When there's a problem, the vehicle alerts the driver by turning on the hazard lights, turning down the radio volume or even reducing the car's speed.
This system uses two sensors. One shines infrared light into the fingers and measures heart rate and oxygen saturation in the blood. The other measures the electric conductance of the skin at contact. This information is sent back to the vehicle through a a small computer chip. The scientists also are looking at ways to connect the sensors to external devices, such as blood pressure monitors.
Ford Motor Co. has taken a different approach to heart health monitoring. Its German research has developed a car seat that checks heart activity through the use of a built-in electrocardiogram. Six sensors in the seat can measure the driver's heart rate even through clothing and provide an early warning of any irregularity. Ford says the system also might be used to record the heart activity of cardiac patients, allowing them to share the data with their physicians and avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor's office.
Finding ways to monitor heart activity will become even more important as the U.S. population ages. The Federal Highway Administration reports that the number of licensed drivers over 70 rose from under 18 million in 1997 to nearly 22 million in 2008, and that number is expected to increase as baby boomers age. That means that more drivers with heart problems could be on the road. According to the American Heart Association, about 82 percent of people who die of coronary heart disease are 65 or older.