By Padma Nagappan
Falling asleep at the wheel on long trips or when tired is a common concern for drivers. To address this problem, a British company called Plessey Semiconductors has developed sensors that can be embedded under the fabric on the back of a car seat to measure a driver’s ECG as he or she drives. Plessey discussed its technology as one of a handful of companies among the many academics and researchers that presented at the Wireless Life Science Alliance’s Wireless Health 2012 event in San Diego this week.
At an event in Japan last year Toyota showed a Prius with a steering wheel that had built-in ECG sensing. In May 2011 Ford’s research labs announced that it was working on embedding technology that appears very similar to the one Plessey demonstrated at this week’s WLSA event: Ford Research’s Gary Strumolo, Manager of Vehicle Design & Infotronics, revealed last year that the automaker was researching embedded heat rate monitors in seats to measure — among other things — a driver’s stress level.
Clive Beech, principal applications engineer at Plessey, demonstrated a hand-held device that looks like a game console, with two sensors placed on top where you rest your thumbs. The device reads your pulse within seconds, according to Beech, and transmits a continuous feed via Bluetooth to your smartphone.
The sensor compares the driver’s regular heart rate data with the data generated while he or she is driving.
“I couldn’t bring a whole car seat from the UK to show how we embed the sensors under the fabric,” Beech said, “but it’s not just for drivers, it can be used for home health and by professional ECG equipment makers too.”
Beech said his company has discussed the technology with “high end” car manufacturers in both Europe and the US.
The sensor is a small square, 10 millimeters in length and breadth and 2 millimeters thick. It would take six such sensors to cover the car seat and account for different driver heights. (Coincidentally, the image that Ford released of the heart rate sensing car seats it was developing last May also included six sensors on the car seat.)
The University of Sussex originally developed the sensor, but Plessey now has an exclusive license. The company hopes to see the sensors used in ECG equipment by next year and expects car companies to bring it to market sometime in 2014.