A joint project bringing together academic researchers and private firms in the automotive industry is developing an automobile capable of warning its driver of an impending heart attack.
“We want to reduce the number of unfortunate accidents” by developing the system “as early as possible,” said Takao Kato, a professor emeritus at Nippon Medical School, who proposed the project a decade ago.
The project envisages mounting in the steering wheel two electric poles for electrocardiographic monitoring and sensors to detect pulse waves created in blood vessels when blood is sent from the heart.
By gripping the wheel, the driver’s electrocardiograms and pulse waves are monitored. Data are analyzed on a real-time basis and the driver is told of any dangerous symptoms by voice and on the car navigation system.
Kato, who specializes in cardiovascular medicine, made the proposal when Toyota Motor Corp. solicited ideas from the public for developing a vehicle designed to protect the lives of drivers and those around them.
Each year, an average of 20 drivers suddenly die at the wheel in Tokyo’s 23 wards. Heart attacks account for more than half of such deaths, which can cause accidents involving passengers, pedestrians and other drivers.
With Toyota accepting Kato’s proposal, the medical university, the automaker and its affiliated parts supplier, Denso Corp., launched the project.
University researchers including Kato analyzed electrocardiograms of 34 people who developed ventricular fibrillations or acute heart attacks while wearing a Holter monitor, which continuously records the heart’s rhythms. While 20 of them died, the analysis found that 31 people had shown a common pattern of fluctuations in the autonomic nerves one to two hours before their cardiac troubles.
“If the pattern can be detected, heart attacks can be anticipated to some extent,” Kato said, suggesting the system will not only warn drivers of possible cardiac attacks just before they occur but also predict them in advance.
“The question is how to improve the accuracy of detection,” he said.
Automobiles are not conducive to recording the heart’s rhythms due to noise from engines and audio equipment.
But clear data on the rhythms can be obtained by improving the circuits of the detector, said Tsuyoshi Nakagawa, a senior engineer at Denso.
As part of efforts to increase accuracy, project members added electrodes to the driver’s seat so that electrocardiograms can be measured via hand contact with the wheel.
The project participants have a variety of ideas for expanding uses of the planned system. One of them involves combining it with automated driving technology so that a vehicle automatically shifts to an automated cruising mode when the driver shows symptoms of cardiac trouble.
The project needs to clear legal hurdles before any vehicle equipped with the envisaged system can be put into practical use. For example, an experimental vehicle is allowed to run only on a test course, though the collection of data from experiments on public roads is indispensable. If the system is designated as a medical device, it must obtain approval under the pharmaceutical affairs law. Approval from the transport ministry is also needed.
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