If a driver has a sudden serious health condition – such as a seizure, heart attack, or stroke – it’s immediately evident to those outside the car. The vehicle typically starts behaving erratically and steers off the road, causing good Samaritans to come to the driver’s aid. That’s the case with people-driven cars, anyway. With autonomous cars, there’s a fear that no one beyond the windshield will notice if a lone occupant has a health-related problem. The question is, after a major health event will the car just continue blithely on to its destination, ignorant of the driver’s health?

That’s the problem we’ve been recently thinking through. We’re looking at ways of assessing the health of passengers inside autonomous vehicles. With infrared and visual cameras, we can detect the states of occupants, which might be indicative of a serious condition: a dramatic increase in pulse rate, a drop in body temperature, or a sudden slumped position. Because nothing needs to be worn or attached for our technology to work, it can passively monitor the health of everyone in the car. This may be a critically needed safeguard for driverless cars, but this same technology makes regular cars safer too. In addition to heart attacks or strokes, our sensors can detect drowsiness or sleepiness when the driver is supposed to be actively controlling the vehicle.

Once a health problem is detected, the next step is to trigger some type of alert. To see if the person is okay, the car can use several escalating methods to arouse the driver, adjusting the lighting, playing sounds, or perhaps using a digital assistant asking, “Are you alright?” to see if they answer. If they’re not responsive, the car can contact emergency services. If a person is driving and becomes drowsy, the car could cool down the cabin, diffuse a stimulating fragrance (like peppermint), and play active music to keep them engaged and alert. Conversely, if the car is autonomous and the person doesn’t react, the car can automatically reroute itself to the nearest emergency facility.

We’re anticipating the changes that autonomous cars will bring by creating solutions that will work tomorrow as well as today. We’ll be demoing this biometric sensing technology as well as a number of other new mobility solutions at our CES booth in just a couple weeks – sign up to see more, and see you soon.

Brian Debler Principal HMI Engineer

Brian bridges between the creative teams that handle user experience and the technical teams that will implement them, all while working with both to meet customer needs.