Smart steering wheel gives a health check while driving

Smart steering wheel gives a health check while driving
Sensors integrated into the steering wheel monitor the driver's vital signs while driving (Image: Jakob Neuhauser / TUM)
Sensors integrated into the steering wheel monitor the driver's vital signs while driving (Image: Jakob Neuhauser / TUM)
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Sensors integrated into the steering wheel monitor the driver's vital signs while driving (Image: Jakob Neuhauser / TUM)
Sensors integrated into the steering wheel monitor the driver's vital signs while driving (Image: Jakob Neuhauser / TUM)

In the early 1900's, Birmigham's Oliver Lucas developed a steering wheel fitted with an electric car horn that quickly became an industry standard. For many years the horn remained the only button found on vehicle steering wheels, but nowadays they are covered with a multitude of buttons for controlling everything from the vehicle's sound and climate control systems to on board computer functions and a connected smartphone. Researchers from Germany's Technische Universitaet Muenchen, working in collaboration with BMW, have now extended the function of the humble steering wheel even further with the development of a sensor system integrated into the steering wheel that can give the driver a quick health check while driving.

While a variety of systems for monitoring vital signs of drivers have already been developed as part of studies to measure things such as stress levels while driving, these often see the driver wired up so are not suitable for inclusion in mass produced passenger vehicles. By integrating the appropriate sensors into the steering wheel, the system developed at TUM allows data to be collected unobtrusively. The collected data is then radioed to a microcontroller, which can then relay the measurement results to the vehicle's information display.

The system uses two commercially available sensors to measure whether the driver is under severe stress, or whether their blood pressure is too high. The first shines an infrared light into the fingers and measures the heart rate and oxygen saturation via reflected light, while the second measures the electric conductance of the skin at contact. Both sensors require the driver's hands to be in contact with the steering wheel to collect their data - something that's recommended when operating a vehicle anyway.

The researchers carried out initial tests with subjects from the Munich Senior Citizens Advisory Council and saw data provided during four fifths of driving time. More than half the test subjects reportedly felt encouraged to have repeated check ups after using the system. But the researchers say the applications for the system go beyond simple vital sign monitoring.

"Our vision is to get the vehicle to detect when the driver is no longer feeling well and to the initiate appropriate measures," says Professor Lueth, who led the research. "When a stress situation is detected by means of skin conductance values, phone calls can be blocked, for instance, or the volume of the radio turned down automatically. With more serious problems the system could turn on the hazard warning lights, reduce the speed or even induce automated emergency braking."

To extend the amount of data collected and increase the reliability of assertions made about the driver's health, the system also allows additional devices, such as a blood pressure monitor, to be connected via a radio connection. This is possible using a micro-controller application also developed by the researchers that processes the data and transfers it back to the vehicle.

The TUM team's research was part of the Fit4Age research project in the "Assistance Systems for an Aging Society" group, with funding provided by grants from the Bavarian Research Foundation (BFS). Collaboration partners at BMW were responsible for the technical installation of the system components into the vehicle.

I think it should also be possible to start getting cars not loaded with all this crap. Reminds me of the fighter plane paradox going on. The newest fighter planes are so advanced and full of high-tech systems, very few will ever be built.
While I applaud the technology, my car needs to get me from one place to another. I really don\'t want it in the shop because it thinks I am having a heart attack. The more stuff in the car, the less reliable it will be. But then I am from a different era, to my thinking, if you can\'t roll down a window, don\'t get behind the wheel.
I second that, VoiceofReason. That in part why I\'ve switched to motorcycle and bicycle for my commute.
Bill Bennett
VoiceofReason, spot on post, the current BuMmerWs have an hour class so you learn how to use all of the crap inside before you drive off the lot, too much expensive needless crap in cars now days, I had a customer driving a 1982 300SD MickieBenz who rented a car while his was in for service, he could not figure out how to get the window down on the rental at the bank drive thru, I had to point out the handle on the door and show him how to use it, and that happened in 1987,, worse now,, liked your post, you in your fifties?, Bestust, Bill (yeah fancy Latin Sheet)
Joseph Shimandle
This is just more usless stuff added to cars that drive up costs with no value added
Maksimilian Robespierre
I designed almost same system couple years ago, and even send it to Ford and GM comp. They reject, at that time, my idea, altough, it was more advanced, since it consist several other improvements: measure speed, driver vital signs, especially stress level (I'd name it Stress Driving Control), velocity, tyre pressure, ambient temperature and pressure, humidity etc. It has same ability as BMW system, but with one big plus such is stopping vehicle if dirver life is endangered or he faint, as well as ability to reduce vehicle speed if stress level become higher.