A group of scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems (IPMS) have developed an electrocardiogram (ECG) that operates from within a car’s driver’s seat. The device, the researchers say, can monitor the driver’s heart rate and prevent accidents due to driver incapacitation.

The researchers state that other than exhaustion, the number one accident-causing forms of sudden driver incapacitation are heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems. The seat they’ve designed is meant to prevent those types of accidents, when working in concert with automated vehicle emergency response technologies such as active braking and emergency-stop assistance systems.

The ECG in the car’s seat works without direct contact with the driver’s body, says Andreas Heinig, Project Leader at Fraunhofer IPMS. The electrodes of the ECG his team has designed can work through layers of clothing, which could provide a solution for long-term monitoring in other medical fields.

The system incorporates metal plates built into the seat. These plates work as a sort of receiver for the body's natural electromagnetic signals. Even through several layers of clothing, the Fraunhofer team says, the system works well. The challenge is in differentiating between the relatively weak signals given off by the body’s cardiovascular system and the more potent signals created by friction and interference.

A shield and electronic circuit keeps the stronger currents from getting to the circuit board that does the measuring, controlling voltage fluctuations before they enter the computer.

The team states that while its focus is on automotive applications, the implications of the technology are wide. It could be integrated into hospital beds, clothing, blankets, and many other items to provide non-invasive heart monitoring.

If this technology sounds familiar, Ford worked on something similar back in 2011, eventually closing down its plans earlier this year citing the proliferation of cheaper, simpler systems already on the market via smart watches and fitness apps.