US car maker Ford is developing a car seat that monitors the driver’s heart activity, in a bid to reduce road accidents and deaths caused by heart attack at the wheel.

The car seat, currently at the early prototype stage, uses electrocardiograph (ECG) technology to track the electrical impulses in the driver’s heart and spot irregularities such as signs of heart attack or some other cardiovascular problem, for instance, to alert the driver to seek medical advice.

Normally, a clinical ECG machine has to be attached to the skin via electrodes, but in this application, the car seat has six built-in “contactless” ECG sensors that can detect heart activity through clothing.

In a statement released this week, Ford said in recent tests, the prototype contactless heart monitoring system showed an ability to give accurate readings for 98% of driving time in 95% drivers.

Engineers are hoping to improve these figures and also increase the range of materials through which the signals can be accurately detected, including those that interrupt readings with their own electrical activity.

The innovative ECG car seat is the result of a collaboration between Engineers from Ford’s European Research Centre in Aachen, Germany, and researchers at Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule at Aachen University.

The heart monitor car seat will also be able to detect symptoms of other conditions, such as high blood pressure or electrolyte imbalances, said Dr Achim Lindner, medical officer at the Ford Research Centre.

“This not only benefits the driver; but also could make the roads safer for all users,” he explained.

Ford also plan to link the heart monitor seat with other safety systems. They are already testing the prototype to see how it might work with systems that warn the driver to pull over and seek medical help, or perhaps even alert medical workers directly.

An example of the latter could be to link the monitor via a mobile phone. Using Ford’s SYNC technology with MyFord Touch, due to be launched in Europe in 2012, the ECG car seat could use the driver’s own mobile phone to send messages about the driver’s irregular heart activity to medical centers.

Another idea is to link the ECG car seat to Ford’s SYNC technology, which enables a whole range of connections to the likes of Bluetooth, Internet services, and smartphone apps.

For instance, using a SYNC function called Emergency Assistance, the ECG information could be relayed to emergency response teams, so they know what was happening to the driver’s heart before and during the accident, as well as after.

The need to do something to reduce road accidents linked to cardiovascular events is clear. Recent research from a three-year European Union sponsored Impaired Motorists, Methods of Roadside Testing and Assessment for Licensing project estimates that drivers with cardiovascular diseases are on average 23% more likely to be involved in an accident. This figure rises to 52% for drivers with angina.

The problem is likely to get worse as Europe’s population ages, bringing with it the prospect of more drivers at risk of heart attacks on the road. Estimates suggest 23% of Europeans will be aged 65 and over by 2025, rising to 30% by 2050.

Ford says there are other ways the ECG seat could be used to increase safety for drivers and other road users, such as linking it to other advanced technologies like Lane Departure Warning, Lane Keeping Aid, Active City stop and Speed Limiter.

Ford researchers are also looking at how to use the ECG seat to monitor heart patients, feeding results into records that help doctors keep track of heart activity and reduce hospital visits.

Lindner said although the seat is still at the prototype stage, they can see potential for it to be “instrumental in diagnosing heart conditions early”.

Professor Steffen Leonhardt of Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule, Aachen University, whose team has been working since early 2009 to adapt the contactless ECG technology, said:

“The Ford seat is a natural progression from our work on contactless ECG monitoring equipment and provides an exciting potential real-world benefit.”

“This technology holds the promise of saving lives and making the roads safer,” he added.

The heart-monitoring car seat is one of a range of in-car health monitoring solutions that Ford is developing, including systems to help drivers with diabetes, asthma or allergies manage their condition while on the go.

Main source: Ford Motor Company Newsroom.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD