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Can a Car Monitor a Driver’s Health?

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   May 30, 2024

Automakers are applying the smart home concept to the automobile, with plans to include sensors that can track a driver’s physical and mental health

The next healthcare access point for providers could be the car.

General Motors is seeking a patent for technology inside the automobile that tracks a driver’s behavior and health through sensors, according to Autoblog.com. The technology could help to identify drivers who are impaired or affected by a wide range of health concerns, ranging from drugs and alcohol to issues with mental acuity, breathing, blood pressure, or blood sugar.

The company’s plans, which have been ongoing since at least 2022, are to create a tech platform inside the car that establishes a profile of the driver’s habits, called a “vehicle occupant mental well-being assessment.” The platform would then identify any trends that fall outside the norm and use “counter-measure deployment,” which would range from asking the driver to perform a “mental health exercise,” calling family members or a trained professional, or even taking control of the car.

The idea isn’t exactly new. Automotive displays at CES in Las Vegas have for many years hinted at or even featured prototype sensors and technology aimed at tracking the driver’s health. Cars can now be fitted with technology that prevents a driver under the influence of alcohol from starting the car.

The effort has ties to the remote patient monitoring movement, in which healthcare providers are looking to track patients and provide on-demand services outside the hospital, clinic or doctor’s office. And with programs like Lake Nona’s WHIT House in Florida targeting smart home concepts, automakers are aiming to do the same thing with their newest vehicles.

Aside from tracking people with substance abuse issues, healthcare providers and public health advocates say the technology could address accidents each year linked to driver distress, such as mental health issues, blood pressure, diabetes, cardiac issues, even allergic reactions. While those accidents only represent about 2% of all crashes in the U.S. each year, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation, 84% of those are caused by medical emergencies that could potentially be detected and prevented.

Ideally, the technology might someday be used to identify hazards to drivers, like smog or high pollen counts for people with respiratory issues, or direct (or even steer) drivers to a nearby healthcare site in an emergency.

Several carmakers are giving health and wellness tools a serious look. In the past few years Mazda, Audi, and Toyota have said they are working on next-generation cars armed with a wide variety of sensors, including ECG sensors in the steering wheel and earpieces designed to measure a driver’s impairment.

And back in 2011, the Ford Motor Company announced partnerships with digital health companies WellDoc, Medtronic, and SDI Health to include health and wellness connectivity solutions on the Ford SYNC platform.

“We want to broaden the paradigm, transforming SYNC into a tool that can improve people’s lives as well as the driving experience,” Paul Mascarenas, chief technology and vice president of Ford Research and Innovation, said in a May 2011 press release.

The company also announced plans to embed sensors in the seats to monitor a person’s heart rate, though by 2015 the company had ditched those plans. And while the latest SYNC platform offers integration with apps, no mention is made of health and wellness monitoring.

In many cases, automakers have abandoned these plans on the idea that wearables would do a much better job monitoring drivers, as well as passengers. But the fact that GM is taking an active look at the technology means they haven’t given up on the idea.

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Healthcare providers are looking for more ways to track patient health outside the hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office.

Much like the smart home concept, automakers are eyeing technology that can help monitor drivers and even intervene if they’re in distress.

The technology could not only give providers a new access point for care management but help address accidents caused by medical emergencies.


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