Soon, your car may know your heart rate—and may take control from you if it doesn’t like what it sees.

A new project from Nottingham Trent University in the UK is working on an electrocardiogram (ECG) built into the driver’s seat to detect heart rate and determine when the driver is too fatigued—or worse, falling asleep—in order to improve road safety.

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The technology uses circuits integrated into the seats, called Electric Potential Integrated Circuits, or EPIC. Developed by Plessey Semiconductors, the EPIC circuit can measure heart rate, respiration, and more to monitor alertness and health.

Plessey business development director Steve Cliffe told industry trade publication Innovation in Textiles, "We are extremely excited to be working with Nottingham Trent University on this TSB funded program. For the first time it will be possible to reliably and robustly extract electrophysiology signals using Plessey EPIC sensors in an automotive environment without direct contact with the body."

Ideally, the system could be integrated with active cruise control, lane-keeping functions, and more, to take over if a driver ignores or fails to respond to the car’s warnings about alertness.

EPIC automotive sensors could monitor driver alertness for safety. Image via Plessey Semiconductors.

EPIC automotive sensors could monitor driver alertness for safety. Image via Plessey Semiconductors.

The result? Accident mitigation or avoidance in cases of driver fatigue, and potentially other situations, such as heart attack, as well. There's a certain element of discomfort for some when thinking about their car knowing so many intimate details of their biology, especially if it has the ability to take control from the driver, but at the same time, the EPIC sensors, applied in this fashion, could save lives.

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The technology is still in a nascent phase, with materials challenges like conductive textile technology required for the ECG electrodes woven into the seat backs. This is the area of research being investigated by researches at NTU.

Due to complexity and cost, the initial applications are expected to come in the commercial driving arena, helping to ensure truck drivers stay safe behind the wheel.

Eventually, it could expand into the private automobile market, likely starting at the high-end luxury realm as so many other new technologies do.