Saturday, June 23, 2012

Cars That Care

Health technology of the future promises an easy life with no interruption in your daily activities. For example, information about your health could be collected while you're driving. A car is already viewed as a health platform and wellness coach by leading manufacturers. How would this work?


To begin with, by measuring our heart rate. The electrocardiographic (ECG) seat built by Ford is based on studies of sensors in beds for intensive care units. Unlike traditional monitoring systems, it does not require attaching electrodes to the skin and can measure signals through relatively thin cloth. Toyota's response to Ford's seat is an ECG-sensing steering wheel.

Regardless of what type of system incorporates the sensors, clever algorithmic science is needed to account for artifacts caused by lateral movements. Wartzek and colleagues showed that unobtrusive and reliable measurements of heart rate are indeed possible during driving by identifying useful intervals in heavily distorted ECG signals (which is easier on the highway than in city traffic). Moreover, data from ECG, GPS and optical devices could  be combined  with other measurements though, as Doherty and colleagues showed, significant data processing issues still remain. Companies like Aurametrix are addressing the problem of noisy environments with innovative approaches. 

So in a few years cars will start to take care of us. We need to polish up the sensor and data processing technologies and also manage the chemicals added to the interior of the car--including those contributing to the "new car" smell.  Unhealthy particles in some automobile interiors already exceed US EPA standards, especially in heavy traffic situations (although bicyclists and pedestrians have their own problems). The latest report by HealthyStuff.org ranks over 200 of the most popular models based on chemical-emitting steering wheels, dashboards, armrests and seats. As the table shows, stylish and sporty models are at the bottom of the list.  



There are many reasons to believe these problems will be addressed. If so, we can look forward to a future with safely built in to the systems we use in our every day lives.


REFERENCES


Wartzek T, Eilebrecht B, Lem J, Lindner HJ, Leonhardt S, & Walter M (2011). ECG on the road: robust and unobtrusive estimation of heart rate. IEEE transactions on bio-medical engineering, 58 (11), 3112-20 PMID: 21824839

Doherty ST, & Oh P (2012). A multi-sensor monitoring system of human physiology and daily activities. Telemedicine journal and e-health : the official journal of the American Telemedicine Association, 18 (3), 185-92 PMID: 22480300