Ford car seat prototype keeps its sensors on your heart, so you can keep your eyes on the road

Chevy had the whole "Heartbeat of America" thing cornered in the 80s, but now its Ford's turn to get in on the action. The car maker's European research team unveiled a prototype car seat capable of monitoring a driver's heart courtesy of six embedded electrodes, which can take measurements without coming in direct contact with skin. The technology, the latest in a recent string of health-related in-vehicle concepts from the company, can detect whether the driver is having a heart attack and transmit that information to the vehicle's safety system. According to the researchers, the system is already highly accurate in its prototype state, making correct readings for 98 percent of drive time with 95 percent of the drivers tested. For more information on the system, check the video and press release after the break.

Ford Researchers Develop Car Seat That Monitors Drivers' Heart Activity

AACHEN, Germany, May 24, 2011 – Ford Motor Company's advanced research engineers have developed a prototype vehicle seat that can monitor a driver's heart activity and could one day reduce the number of accidents and fatalities that occur as a result of motorists having heart attacks behind the wheel.

Engineers from Ford's European Research Centre in Aachen, Germany, working closely with Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule, Aachen University, embarked on the project to address an often overlooked traffic safety issue – accidents triggered by drivers who experience heart problems.

The prototype Ford seat employs ECG (electrocardiograph) technology that monitors the heart's electrical impulses and detects signs of irregularity that can provide an early warning that a driver should seek medical advice, because he might be impacted by a heart attack or other cardiovascular issues. Whereas a normal ECG machine in a doctor's office requires metal electrodes to be attached to the skin at various points on the body, the Ford ECG seat has six built-in sensors that can detect heart activity through the driver's clothing.

"The system will be able to detect if someone is having a cardiovascular issue, for example a heart attack, and could also be used to detect the symptoms of other conditions such as high blood pressure or electrolyte imbalances," said Dr. Achim Lindner, Ford Research Centre medical officer. "This not only benefits the driver; but also could make the roads safer for all users."

Research by the Impaired Motorists, Methods of Roadside Testing and Assessment for Licensing project, a three-year European Union research programme, found that drivers suffering from cardiovascular disease were, on average, 23 per cent more likely to be involved in a road accident. For drivers who suffered from angina, this figure grew to 52 per cent.

With 23 per cent of Europe's population expected to be 65-years or older by 2025, and 30 per cent by 2050, the number of drivers at risk of heart attacks is likely to rise considerably in the coming decades.

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, or possibly even send out an alert to emergency medical workers if necessary.

Lindner said the mobile phone could play a key role as the interface for any future application of the technology. Connected to a system such as Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch, due to arrive in Europe in 2012, the Ford heart rate monitoring seat potentially could use the driver's mobile phone to send a message to medical centres, alerting doctors to irregular heart activity. The seat also could be linked to SYNC's Emergency Assistance function to inform emergency response teams of the driver's heart condition before, during and after an accident.

Ford is exploring how advanced safety technologies such as Lane Departure Warning with Lane Keeping Aid, Active City Stop and Speed Limiter could work together with the heart rate monitoring seat to help protect drivers in cases where they experience heart problems.

Ford's engineers also are studying how the heart monitoring seat can be used to observe heart patients and allow doctors to maintain a record of heart activity that can be transmitted to medical professionals and reduce the need for visits to the hospital.

"Although currently still a research project, this technology could prove to be an important breakthrough," said Lindner. "As always in medicine, the earlier a condition is detected the easier it is to treat, and this technology even has the potential to be instrumental in diagnosing heart conditions early."

Ford researchers have been working since early 2009 to adapt the contactless ECG technology developed by Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule, Aachen University.

"The Ford seat is a natural progression from our work on contactless ECG monitoring equipment and provides an exciting potential real-world benefit," said Professor Steffen Leonhardt of Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule, Aachen University. "As the population in Europe and around the world ages, more older people will be behind the wheel and the safety risks increase. This technology holds the promise of saving lives and making the roads safer."

In early tests, the Ford heart monitoring seat has recorded accurate readings during 98 per cent of driving time for 95 per cent of drivers. Ford's 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.