A recent Wall Street Journal article profiled the efforts of auto manufacturers to implement new sensors that could improve driver safety. Researchers are currently working on outfitting vehicles with sensors that measure variables such as a driver's pulse, breathing and sweat levels to manage safety systems.

Biometric sensors raise new regulatory questions for automakers

on Jan 3, 13 • by Chris Bubinas • with No Comments

Researchers are developing biometric sensors designed to be deployed in places such as cars, phones and everyday appliances, with goals of improving public health and encouraging safer driving behavior...

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Researchers are developing biometric sensors designed to be deployed in places such as cars, phones and everyday appliances, with goals of improving public health and encouraging safer driving behavior. As this sensor technology develops, however, developers of the embedded software designed to use sensor data may need to consider a range of coding obstacles such as FDA regulations.

Using sensors for safer driving
A recent Wall Street Journal article profiled the efforts of auto manufacturers to implement new sensors that could improve driver safety. Researchers are currently working on outfitting vehicles with sensors that measure variables such as a driver's pulse, breathing and sweat levels to manage safety systems. By using software to analyze this data in conjunction with inputs from cameras or sensors monitoring driving conditions, vehicles could improve driver concentration by disabling cell phone signals, turning off the radio or tapping the brakes. Such initiatives come at a time when both medical monitoring and self-driving car technologies are rapidly advancing.

Some models from Mercedes-Benz and Lexus already use in-cabin cameras or steering sensors to identify drowsy driving behavior and issue warnings to drivers that they may want to stop, the Wall Street Journal reported. A patent application from Ferrari SpA indicated the company is looking at technology that would use brain wave sensors to evaluate a driver's stress levels, noting that "drivers tend to miscalculate – in particular, overestimate – their driving skill and, more important, their psychophysical condition." BMW researchers are working on designing a car that would stop automatically if the driver suffered a heart attack.

Such systems could also be used to prevent drunk driving and improve safety as the driving population ages, the newspaper noted. However, driver concerns and potential regulatory barriers mean that such technology may be several years distant. For an automaker such as Ford, which is already subject to standards such as MISRA compliance, the prospect of meeting FDA standards may not be particularly appealing.

Eventually, however, the prospect of FDA-approved cars could lead to new capabilities, such as vehicles that help doctors and patients track their day-to-day health needs. According to Dr. Leslie Saxon, the cardiologist who heads the University of Southern California's Center for Body Computing, biometric monitors could provide valuable health notifications in the same way sensors in the car alert drivers to vehicle service needs.

"My car calls me when it needs something," Dr. Saxon told the Wall Street Journal. "I want patients' cars to call them when they need blood-pressure medicine."

Improving public health with widespread sensors
Such technologies may become commonplace as sensors proliferate in a range of devices, according to a recent Fast Company Co.Exist article. One manufacturer recently received FDA approval for an iPhone case that can conduct an electrocardiogram, for instance, and other household monitoring devices are in development.

With the combination of various sensors and big data analytics, the medical system may evolve to identify potential issues in new ways. For instance, a program called the Parkinson's Voice Initiative aims to build an algorithm that could diagnose early signs of Parkinson based on speech patterns and eventually use data from phone calls to warn patients that they are exhibiting such signs, Co.Exist reported.

Such technologies raise some ethical issues – many people might find it unsettling to receive a diagnosis from an automated system, Co.Exist noted – but they also present a development challenge. As the medical profession shifts to greater reliance on computerized tools, developers will need to be able to guarantee accuracy. Tools including source code analysis may be instrumental in helping programmers meet standards such as those administered by the FDA and providing the level of reliability needed to assuage patient concerns.

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