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Carmakers Developing Hi-Tech Biometric Sensors for Drivers

Friday, December 21, 2012 - 04:27 PM

(Bob Moon -- Marketplace) Here's the next big thing in car technology: biometric monitors. They could one day be used to track everything from a driver's stress level to blood-sugar levels. Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus are among the carmakers that are busy doing research to take us down that road.

Ford technician Jeff Greenberg, who is leading the carmaker's research into the use of biometric monitors, says the car of the future could be equipped to keep track of you in much more intimate ways. Among the monitors that Ford has been researching, he says, are sensors embedded in the steering wheel that can measure galvanic skin response -- "basically how sweaty your palms are," he explains. Seat belt sensors can monitor breathing rates.

Based on what your car decides, Greenberg says, your cell phone might not ring through at just the moment you're likely experiencing  sensory overload in heavy traffic. The trick to having your car second-guess your driving abilities is figuring out what's helpful, or could just be more distracting.

IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland says she and most of her colleagues ended up ignoring a new dashboard warning indicator that was featured on a new Mercedes Benz model they were recently invited to test-drive. The coffee-cup icon is supposed to signal that you might be drowsy, but she says it popped up for everyone who drove the test car.

"At first we didn't know if it was telling us to go to the nearest Starbucks, or what it really meant," Lindland says.

Most of the current technology is based on cameras and radar that watch the road. But the new experiments with biometric sensors take things to a whole new level. So, could a car be programmed to stop automatically if it sensed, say, a heart attack? Greenberg stresses that the data won't be used to diagnose health conditions.

"They're not designed as medical-grade sensors," Greenberg explains. "We are not going to turn the car into an FDA-certified medical device."

Lindland, at IHS Automotive, wonders if prospective car buyers will be attracted, or might just be put off by systems that go too far. She suggests car dealers will have their work cut out for them: "Nobody goes in looking for a car that takes your pulse, you know?"

Even Ford's own advertising is already treading lightly when it comes to presenting your car as a nag. A video promoting the automaker's "lane-keeping alert system" says the car gives "a gentle suggestion that it might be time to stop and take a break," although the warning chime does become "more insistent" if you keep going.

Ford's Greenberg says the new biometric technology isn't likely to be employed right away, but will become familiar to drivers eventually. He promises that designers are focused on being helpful, not invasive.

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