Researchers develop steering wheel with health sensors

A Munich-based research team has developed a steering wheel embedded with sensors to monitor the health of drivers.

Developed in conjunction with BMW at the Technische Universität München’s school of micro technology and medical device technology, the steering wheel conducts a minor health check on the driver each time they get in their car. It may also be optimised to recognise the onset of heart attacks or fainting spells.

By integrating appropriate sensors into the steering wheel, the team claims it has managed to circumnavigate the task of attaching wires to the driver, a scenario that was necessary in previous systems developed to measure stress levels in drivers.

Two sensors are embedded into the wheel, which are used to monitor different aspects of human health. The first shines infrared light into the fingers and measures the driver’s heart rate and oxygen saturation via reflected light; the second measures the electric conductance of the skin at contact.

The data is radioed to a microcontroller, which in turn can show the measurement results on the vehicle information system display.

The developers claim none of the existing health-monitoring systems are suited for automotive mass production.

Project lead Lorenzo D’Angelo told The Engineer that putting the sensors into the steering wheel was seen as an easier option than building them into the seat, a method that has been tried in the past.

However, the project still had its own hurdles to overcome.

‘Our biggest challenge was embedding the sensors… and programming them to read out the results without relying on a PC,’ explained D’Angelo.

D’Angelo said there is still scope to develop the technology further by including more sensors in the steering wheel that are optimised for a specific purpose.

’There aren’t commercially available sensors for blood pressure that are non-invasive. There is also still a lot of work to do on detecting if someone is really about to faint,’ he added. 

The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a system that initiates safety measures should a medical anomaly be detected in the driver.

This could include blocking phone calls, turning down the volume of the radio, turning on hazard lights, reducing vehicle speed or emergency braking.

The team is now waiting to see if industry is interested in developing the product further for the mass market.