Is there Potential in Biometrics In-Car Health Monitoring?

Eric Volkman

August 26, 2022

4 Min Read

In the future, will your car also be your doctor?

That’s not as farfetched as it might sound. For example, in-car breathalyzers have been used for years to check the sobriety levels of drivers previously convicted of drunk-driving offenses (passing a test allows the driver to turn over the vehicle and ride it away). With the popularity of mobile devices and wearable technology, healthcare monitoring services are easily available in a driver’s pocket or on his or her wrist; it isn’t hard to connect or adapt these to a car’s software platform.

“Today, we have technology we could not imagine being a part of the average person’s daily life a generation or two ago,” said Jennifer Tisdale, CEO of cyber-security company GRIMM. “It is not a big leap to imagine a scenario where technology could achieve medical diagnosis or at least medical alerts notifying passengers to obtain a medical exam.”

The health status of the driver is, naturally, of paramount importance. So, it’s understandable that many of the scattered health monitoring functionalities of ADAS platforms are concentrated on this. Camera-based solutions monitor the body positions of car pilots; if these are found to be assuming a sleeping position, an alarm is triggered to keep that person awake. Perhaps it’s not too much of a leap from here to the point where a car could detect and alert an occupant about a looming health risk.

Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at research firm Guidehouse Insights, is skeptical. To him, there is one crucial technology development element missing with such systems – consumer desire. Top-down mandates from authorities will help, yet these are never as powerful as groundswells from a hungry public. “I don't think consumers are yet demanding such technologies, but at least driver monitor systems will become more ubiquitous in the next few years, especially in Europe where Euro NCAP requirements will be looking for this in order to get top marks,” he said, referring to the voluntary vehicle safety assessment program on the continent. Here in the US, DMS (driver monitoring system) is likely to become the method used to meet the anti-impaired driving technology requirement that was passed as part of the infrastructure bill.”

It’s quite a stretch to characterize anti-drunk driving functionalities as “infrastructure”. Nevertheless, the $1Trn US infrastructure bill signed into law by President Biden last November includes a provision that will ultimately require vehicle makers to install such solutions in every auto they manufacture. Yet, even if the bottom-up consumer demand grows for in-car healthcare monitoring functionalities, will carmakers and their favorite solutions providers necessarily take the lead on that drive? Peter Virk, vice-president of IVY product and ecosystem at BlackBerry, doubts it. “Augmenting the ‘Quantified Self’ with biometric insights from the vast array of in-car sensors seems like a logical move for OEMs,” he said. “However, the market opportunity is much greater for wearable makers themselves as they’re literally with and on people all the time in, whether they’re in the car or out, providing a much more holistic picture of one’s health.”

In fact, the key reason many consumers buy wearable tech in the first place is to have immediate access to health monitoring services. Not to be outdone, health apps for mobile devices have grown in sophistication and accuracy. The risk for manufacturers or in-car solutions developers is that including health monitoring suites as part of a vehicle’s software platform might not be much of a lure for the average car buyer. This person could be perfectly happy with the apps on his or her phone, or the functionalities built into the fitness tracker on their wrist.

Additionally, pushing deeper into the healthcare monitoring realm requires specialized medical expertise many automakers and their technology partners typically don’t possess. It could produce other headaches too. “Anything health related adds a lot of complexity,” said Abuelsamid. “It must have a very high degree reliability to avoid false positives or negatives. Going beyond basic driver attention monitoring adds both cost and software complexity and may require some degree of regulatory approval that auto makers are not accustomed to. There is also a lot of potential liability if a feature fails to detect a health problem and a crash occurs.”

Other challenges related to this are privacy and data protection. Consumer medical data is highly sensitive and it must be recorded, stored and protected accordingly. So far, vehicle owners have generally been accepting of in-car systems that monitor their driving performance; health data is far more delicate, though, so there might be significant push-back to any solutions provider seen to be lax in handling it.

So, while vehicle-native healthcare monitoring is a fine idea that could have real potential the closer we get to autonomy – think robo-taxis and automated shuttle buses being able to alert emergency services in the case of a passenger health “event” – there are numerous roadblocks in its way just now. The car as doctor discovering early signs of health distress may a comforting thought but for the foreseeable future it’s probably not going to become any kind of reality.

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