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Car Could Check Your Heart Rate While You Drive

Researchers think drivers could use their sensor-laden Mini Cooper as an aid to health.

Nigel knows where you’ve been and whether you opened the windows when you got there. He probably knows whether you visited a fast food restaurant and might recommend you go for a jog. Nigel, as it turns out, is your car.

This week, researchers from the University of Southern California will show off their driver-tracking Mini Cooper—dubbed Nigel—at this year’s Body Computing Conference. Nigel is actually a combination of some 230 sensors on the Mini Cooper and an iPhone app that monitors its driver’s habits and even creates specific driving games or suggests activities for each of the car’s drivers. While the gaming and activities aspect of the Nigel experience was the inspiration to its USC Cinematic Arts developers, the car could also aid its driver’s health, says Leslie Saxon, chief of cardiology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC and founder of the Center for Body Computing.

Health care needs to be more integrated into the rest of our daily activities, says Saxon, and there is “a huge unmet need” for patients to be more connected to their own health. Body information sensors in a car could be one way to help meet this need. While the people who drive a car like Nigel would likely be in it for the sports experience, they could still benefit from the body education. “Why shouldn’t they use those same sensors to find something that they need to get care for, or learn that they need to keep their heart rate within a certain range?” asks Saxon. 

The idea is that the sensors in the car could be used to track certain aspects of the owner’s health. For example, the smart-car team plans to integrate sensors into the steering wheel that would track the driver’s heart rate. Maybe a driver’s heart rate goes up with miles per hour, or maybe the heart rate slows when a relaxing song is played through the speakers. When people learn what their bodies respond to by watching how their body metrics change while listening to certain music or visiting certain places, they become “unquestionably more sophisticated” in their self-awareness, says Saxon.

“Self-tracking in a car could have its advantages,” says Paul Abramson, a San Francisco physician who integrates self-tracking into his practice. “A car would be a good place to measure people’s response to stress. Being in the car [creates] a constantly changing and stressful environment.”

But Abramson says that tracking will most benefit patients who have a particular condition they are trying to better understand or resolve. People who track their health data just for entertainment’s sake aren’t likely to do it for very long, he says.

“My view is, at least in its current level of sophistication, self-tracking should be done by people who have a problem they want to solve. The vast majority of people find this motivating, because it’s fundamentally about doing something for themselves,” he says. “You don’t have to trust the doctor.”

Joseph Kvedar, director of the Center for Connected Health at Partners Health, has seen firsthand how more body awareness can improve health in patients with chronic conditions. By enabling patients to track their blood pressure, heart rate, and weight at home and wirelessly report their information to their health-care providers, Kvedar and his colleagues have seen the readmission of heart-failure patients drop by 50 percent, he says. “People get so much insight into how their lifestyle affects their health, and having those feedback loops as part of your consciousness puts health care top of mind,” says Kvedar.

Yet Saxon thinks that by integrating health metrics into a fun experience like driving, patients may get addicted to their data. “Health care is a narrative for people, particularly people who have chronic disease,” she says. “What digital allows us to do in a very fundamental way is desegregate health care, and I think that that’s one of the major problems with health care. It’s not integrated into other experiences.”

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