Driving can be stressful, so it probably isn't a huge surprise that a significant number of traffic accidents are the result of driver's losing control due to a medical emergency. Heart attacks behind the wheel are dangerous not only for the the driver but for everyone else on the road. Toyota has recently joined forces with a team of researchers at the University of Michigan to explore the potential of creating a cardiac monitoring system that could be built into cars to warn drivers of an impending cardiac event.

Funded initially by a feasibility grant from Toyota's Collaborative Safety Research Center, the team first investigated how a real-time system that monitors a driver's cardiac condition could be implemented into vehicles.

"The study took about seven months, and we identified the challenges, potential solutions, hardware options and algorithmic approaches that could be potentially used," says Kayvan Najarian, Michigan Medical researcher leading the investigation.

The research now faces two primary challenges. One is developing a system that can monitor a driver's heart rhythms that is built into the car and can filter out all the superfluous in-vehicle noise. While an external device, such as a medical wearable, could be utilized to gather this data, the ideal scenario would be to build the monitoring device into the vehicle, possibly by embedding sensors into the steering wheel, seat or seat-belt.

The second challenge is in developing an algorithm that can process this data in real-time and predict if a driver is about to suffer a significant cardiac event. The team plans to work for the next two to three years on developing algorithmic and hardware solutions to these challenges. By 2020 they hope to report the next set of results.

Once these hurdles are overcome, a decision on what action the vehicle should take when an imminent cardiac event is detected needs to be made. Alerting the driver could add extra stress, but the car autonomously applying the brakes and bringing the car to a stop could be just as dangerous.

With an increasing number of older drivers on the road, the dangers of drivers experiencing a cardiac event are obvious. But with the rate of progress in the autonomous vehicle sector we wonder if this is a worthwhile approach to the problem? Maybe in 15 years time it won't matter if we have a heart attack in vehicles as we won't even be controlling them. Instead the car would simply just change its destination and take you to the hospital.