How the car of the future will keep you healthy

3rd Sep 2013 | 09:00

How the car of the future will keep you healthy

Coffee break reminders and free ambulances

Short of hiring a nurse to drive with you on a commute, the modern car of today is not exactly a medical asset.

In fact, according to recent highway safety stats, collisions in the USA are now more common and there were more fatalities compared to the previous year.

Your car knows almost nothing about your medical condition, such as whether your pulse is racing, if you are having a heart attack, or if you've recently started taking heavy medication.

But that could change over the next decade, as vehicles monitor your health as you drive, determine if you are fit to drive and even intervene to prevent an accident. They might even dim the lights to fit your mood, play ambient music during stressful road conditions, and drive you to a hospital.

The recently-announced Ford S-Max is just a concept car but it can monitor your heart rate and blood sugar levels, giving a clear example of the kind of developments being made.

Current state of technology

The earliest signs of a car becoming a life saver occurred in 2003 when Lexus introduced its Pre-Collision System (or PCS). The tech, accurate within millimetres, helps to determine if a driver is paying attention.

In the 2013 Lexus LS, for example, a more advanced PCS can detect whether your eyes are open or if you're getting drowsy. If a crash is imminent, the car will alert you. If you're still not paying attention, the PCS will brake to reduce your speed.

Of course, many modern cars already offer life-saving safety measures. The 2014 Infiniti Q50, for example, can detect an imminent crash and apply the brakes, and a lane-keeping system makes sure you don't swerve off the road inadvertently.

In the 2013 Infiniti JX35, a reversing system will stop the car if there is an object or person behind you.

How your car is like a medical kit

And in one of the most advanced systems, introduced only in the Japanese version of the Nissan Elgrand, the car knows when you are parking and can detect if you meant to apply the brake and not the accelerator. The car won't surge forward or back and will suppress the speed for you.

Mercedes offers an attention monitoring system in several models. The system watches multiple variables such as steering position and how long you've been driving. You'll see a "coffee break" notice appear in the dash if you're driving too erratically.

None of these systems actually monitor the health of the driver, though. Like any robotic device, they use pre-programmed algorithms to watch steering and lane position. Yet, the technology is available to make the car more like a roving medical kit to help us live better.

Next steps for better health monitoring

There's something much bigger in the works, according to experts and futurists. Several car manufacturers hinted at a future when the car will become more medically aware.

"In the future, cars will automatically drive you to the nearest doctor or hospital if they sense a problem with you or your passengers," says Thilo Koslowski, vice president and distinguished automotive analyst at Gartner.

"The car might suggest that the driver pulls over and takes a break or notify family members that the driver's health isn't where it should be."

How your car is like a medical kit

One of the next steps in monitoring the drive might involve looking for sudden blackouts. Hideki Hada, a Toyota engineer, told TechRadar that sudden changes in driver attention such as a blackout are a well-known problem in the industry, and something that requires more research.

The trade-off, of course, might be whether a sudden movement, such as reaching into the back seat while driving, would trigger a false alarm that annoys the driver.

Another possibility is monitoring the pulse of a driver. Hada says that this is in an experimental stage by reading the pulse from the driver's hand on the steering wheel to determine if there is a concern. "Real-world challenges include people wearing gloves, drivers holding various locations of the steering wheel, environmental and individual variations," says Hada.

Hada says a truck company in Japan experimented with a system that wakes up a driver by emitting an aroma in the cab after detecting the driver is drowsy. Another possible enhancement is that instead of playing a loud warning to startle a driver, which itself could cause a crash, Hada says one option could be to play a softer message, such as your own child's voice.

How your car is like a medical kit

Koslowski says there is a distinct possibility that the car will become much more aware of how you are driving. If you are drowsy, the radio might flip to an ambient rock station.

During a stretch of road that is more prone to collisions between cars, the vehicle might automatically dim the lights and enable a road tracking system that looks closely for dangers. More importantly, the car will know if you are suddenly ill and a danger to yourself - and other drivers.

"The car won't be able to do an X-ray anytime soon, but it will detect if health-related aspects are preventing you from driving the way you should," Koslowski says.

Challenges ahead

In 2011, Nissan presented a concept car that could tell if you were driving drunk. A sensor in the gear stick monitored for a high alcohol level. If the car determined that the driver was over the alcohol limit, you couldn't put it into first gear and a message would appear in the nav system.

As you might expect, some wondered if your car should know if you are about to commit a crime.

Steve Yaeger, a Nissan spokesperson, told TechRadar that the challenge with these systems lies in knowing whether drivers will be comfortable giving up their privacy in this way. For example, he says that there is already the automotive tech available to take the body temperature of a driver, which might be used to determine if he or she is unwell, but drivers don't want that intrusion.

How your car is like a medical kit

Then there is the challenge of sharing private information. If the car can read your blood pressure and pulse, it can also share this data (in the upcoming Microsoft Xbox One, the new Kinect 2 sensor can tell if you have elevated pulse just by monitoring your skin colour).

"It would get more problematic if this information is shared with other organisations such as health insurance providers or the police," says Koslowski.

The good news is that drivers will adopt and approve of these measures if they do provide a health benefit. We may be willing to let our car drive us to the hospital if the alternative is that we die on a lonely roadside.

And, we may even approve of a breath analyser to see if we are too intoxicated to drive a loved one home from a party. The technology is waiting in the wings; now we just need society to catch up to it.

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