Ford developing seat capable of detecting heart attacks

A heart attack behind the wheel can render much of your car's safety equipment moot despite decades of advancement. Ford Motor Company has tasked its European Research Center in Aachen, Germany with finding a way to reduce accidents caused by drivers experiencing heart trouble. According to the automaker, their prototype seat with contactless electrocardiogram technology can warn drivers to seek medical attention immediately by scanning for potential cardiovascular trouble through clothing.

According to Ford, by 2025, nearly one quarter of Europeans will be at least 65 years old, a figure that increases to one third by 2050. As risk of cardiovascular disease increases with age, drivers suffering from conditions like angina can be more than fifty percent more likely to be involved in an accident, so there's a lot of motivation to push this technology.

The prototype seat presently delivers accurate readings for 95 percent of drivers 98 percent of the time. Ford researchers are now looking into how the seat can be integrated with the other safety systems to work together to protect drivers who experience issues behind the wheel.

The safety aspect may be the most obvious application of this technology, but who knows – maybe it could also give real metrics about just how excited a thrilling run in a Mustang Boss 302 actually is. Press release posted after the jump.

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AACHEN, Germany, May 24, 2011 – Ford Motor Company's advanced research engineers have developed a prototype vehicle seat that can monitor a driver's heart activity and could one day reduce the number of accidents and fatalities that occur as a result of motorists having heart attacks behind the wheel.

Engineers from Ford's European Research Centre in Aachen, Germany, working closely with Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule, Aachen University, embarked on the project to address an often overlooked traffic safety issue – accidents triggered by drivers who experience heart problems.

The prototype Ford seat employs ECG (electrocardiograph) technology that monitors the heart's electrical impulses and detects signs of irregularity that can provide an early warning that a driver should seek medical advice, because he might be impacted by a heart attack or other cardiovascular issues. Whereas a normal ECG machine in a doctor's office requires metal electrodes to be attached to the skin at various points on the body, the Ford ECG seat has six built-in sensors that can detect heart activity through the driver's clothing.

"The system will be able to detect if someone is having a cardiovascular issue, for example a heart attack, and could also be used to detect the symptoms of other conditions such as high blood pressure or electrolyte imbalances," said Dr. Achim Lindner, Ford Research Centre medical officer. "This not only benefits the driver; but also could make the roads safer for all users."

Research by the Impaired Motorists, Methods of Roadside Testing and Assessment for Licensing project, a three-year European Union research programme, found that drivers suffering from cardiovascular disease were, on average, 23 per cent more likely to be involved in a road accident. For drivers who suffered from angina, this figure grew to 52 per cent.

With 23 per cent of Europe's population expected to be 65-years or older by 2025, and 30 per cent by 2050, the number of drivers at risk of heart attacks is likely to rise considerably in the coming decades.

Ford is also testing the prototype seat to understand how it could work with other advanced systems within Ford vehicles to warn a driver to pull over and seek medical attention, or possibly even send out an alert to emergency medical workers if necessary.

Lindner said the mobile phone could play a key role as the interface for any future application of the technology. Connected to a system such as Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch, due to arrive in Europe in 2012, the Ford heart rate monitoring seat potentially could use the driver's mobile phone to send a message to medical centres, alerting doctors to irregular heart activity. The seat also could be linked to SYNC's Emergency Assistance function to inform emergency response teams of the driver's heart condition before, during and after an accident.

Ford is exploring how advanced safety technologies such as Lane Departure Warning with Lane Keeping Aid, Active City Stop and Speed Limiter could work together with the heart rate monitoring seat to help protect drivers in cases where they experience heart problems.

Ford's engineers also are studying how the heart monitoring seat can be used to observe heart patients and allow doctors to maintain a record of heart activity that can be transmitted to medical professionals and reduce the need for visits to the hospital.

"Although currently still a research project, this technology could prove to be an important breakthrough," said Lindner. "As always in medicine, the earlier a condition is detected the easier it is to treat, and this technology even has the potential to be instrumental in diagnosing heart conditions early."

Ford researchers have been working since early 2009 to adapt the contactless ECG technology developed by Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule, Aachen University.

"The Ford seat is a natural progression from our work on contactless ECG monitoring equipment and provides an exciting potential real-world benefit," said Professor Steffen Leonhardt of Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule, Aachen University. "As the population in Europe and around the world ages, more older people will be behind the wheel and the safety risks increase. This technology holds the promise of saving lives and making the roads safer."

In early tests, the Ford heart monitoring seat has recorded accurate readings during 98 per cent of driving time for 95 per cent of drivers. Ford's research engineers are continuing to study how sensors can be made to record signals through a greater number of materials including those that interrupt readings with their own electrical activity.

Heart Health Facts

It is a misconception that heart attacks are always accompanied by severe chest pain; some victims suffer no pain at all and an American study found that a third of people who suffered a heart attack did not call an ambulance (UK National Health Service)
Across the EU in 2008, men were nearly twice as likely to die from a heart attack as women (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and European Commission)
More than one quarter of the world's adult population suffered from high blood pressure at the beginning of the 21st century. That figure is expected to have increased by 60 per cent by 2025 (European Union Public Health Information System)
Diseases of the heart accounted for 40 per cent of all deaths inside the European Union in 2008 (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and European Commission)

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