Car manufacturers constantly upgrade safety technology. In 1958, Saab was the first to make seat belts standard. In the early 1970s the Oldsmobile Toronado could be purchased with high-mounted brake lights and airbags. Now with rapid advances in wearables and autonomous driving systems, a new wave of safety technology is on the way — allowing cars to react to medical emergencies.
Toyota and Ford are each independently researching how to pair health sensors with autonomous driving technology so that vehicles will be able to pull off the road and call for help if they determine a passenger is having either cardiac trouble or a diabetic event.
Chuck Gulash, a senior executive engineer at Toyota and director of its Collaborative Safety Research Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said heart rate and blood glucose levels can be effectively monitored, as they are associated with a relatively high number of vehicle crashes.
He referenced a 2009 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, which found that diabetic events were behind 20 percent of crashes precipitated by driver-reported medical emergencies, and heart attacks accounted for an additional 11 percent. As people are not always aware they're having medical trouble, the actual figure could be higher.
"We've spent 30 years scientifically measuring crash criteria, but there wasn't a lot of research into physiological metrics," Gulash said.
Heart-related medical issues behind the wheel are extremely dangerous because the sufferer can lose consciousness, said Dr. Nitish Badhwar, professor of clinical medicine and director of the Cardiac Electrophysiology Training Program at the University of California, San Francisco. People having heart attacks are not always aware of it, Badhwar said. A system that can detect dangerous heart rates, pull off the road and call for assistance would help.