Will driverless vehicles one day be points-of-care?

When you consider that 94 percent of collisions on the road are related to human error, autonomous vehicles show significant promise in minimizing crashes.

For this reason, the government has proposed standardizing the language around vehicle-to-vehicle communication, as well as establishing safety guidelines for driverless vehicles, in an effort to stimulate their growth on a large scale.

As part of their proposal, the Department of Transportation has addressed a range of safety issues—including digital security of data transmissions, technology failure, and how driverless cars will uphold passenger safety during a crash, to name a few. But could driverless cars also one day assist passengers outside of transportation? That is, will cars be employed as health-monitoring devices?

You may have heard that a semi-autonomous Tesla conveyed its owner to the hospital following a pulmonary embolism back in July of 2016. After pulling onto the highway and activating autopilot, the driver was able to reach the emergency room unscathed, where he was quickly treated by doctors who later told him he was lucky to be alive.

This anecdote not only highlights the life-saving potential afforded by driverless technology, but it also alludes to other safety possibilities—such as in-car apps that monitor its passengers' vital signs, logging data in the cloud, and detecting the onset of episodes like these. One might imagine a driver losing consciousness, while the vehicle recognizes the deteriorating condition and steers the vehicle to the nearest medical facility.

Plus, when you consider that the average American driver spends around 17,600 minutes in their car each year, it makes sense that it could also provide crucial point-of-care, with in-car monitoring systems continuously measuring and recording the health of its passengers. The question is, are mobile health-monitoring platforms in the works?

Ford's exploration into mobile health solutions

The concept of connecting a car's dashboard to medical platforms isn't necessarily new. Take Ford's sample apps demoed at the Wireless Health 2011 conference held in San Diego. The idea was to extend existing car technology to healthcare apps and devices. For instance, some cars receive live traffic updates through GPS, so why not also include live pollen counts from pollen.com? Likewise, apps could leverage the car's in-voice command system, via Bluetooth, to connect to a wireless glucose monitoring device from Medtronic and a diabetes tracking service from Welldoc.

Take that even further—using GPS in tandem with local allergy forecasts, Ford's allergy app might roll up the windows or adjust air circulation if the pollen count is too high. If blood sugar is dipping, its diabetes management services app could issue an alert. And when Ford showcased a mock-up version of an S-MAX, a sports utility vehicle, at the 2013 Frankfurt Auto Show, they revealed a concept ECG Heart Rate Monitoring Seat that would track and record long-term cardio data, using its SYNC system to notify paramedics.

By exploring how these solutions could be implemented, the idea that a vehicle might, for example, provide stress management, encourage exercise, or take over the steering wheel during a heart attack isn't beyond our purview.

Our current standing with driverless cars

With tech companies and auto manufacturers working determinately, driverless cars are, without a doubt, on the horizon. It ultimately boils down to who'll be there first to wave the flag.

Tesla announced an upcoming cross-country trip from Los Angeles to New York by the end of this year to demonstrate its fully autonomous technology. In Pittsburgh, Uber released Ford Fusion models equipped with self-driving tech, which still require the accompaniment of a safety driver and engineer due to occasional failure. Google has suggested having fully autonomous technology available by around 2020, though no official deadline has been announced.

Of course, driverless tech advancements and their implementation ultimately depend on the regulatory landscape. So far Washington D.C. and five states—including California, Nevada, Michigan, Tennessee, and Florida—have passed legislation allowing autonomous vehicles on highways.

Regarding previously mentioned guidelines from the Department of Transportation, however, they're mostly devoted to establishing consistency and, above all else, ensuring safety. The DOT by no means aims to dictate how manufacturers ought to go about developing the technology.

Autonomous vehicles as points-of-care

To understand how fully autonomous vehicles might assist healthcare providers, one needn't look beyond existing mobile health devices on the market. Take smartphone-based electrocardiogram devices, like AliveCor, which tracks ECG, accrues data and creates a comprehensive overview of long-term heart health. Given that heart palpitations arise intermittently, relevant data around these episodes—along with logged notes about what was imbibed or eaten that day—can provide doctors with invaluable insight.

Now, imagine a wide spectrum of biometric sensors, including car seats, seat belts, the steering wheel or virtually any surface occupants touch, that passively store massive volumes of data into an account like the cloud. Not only could data mining solutions help diagnose current health deficiencies across these channels, but they could also be predictive of them. What's more, these datasets are likely to become exponentially valuable as the general population ages and more users are connected to them.

Furthermore, the technology behind the driverless car alone might be enough to alleviate chronic conditions, like hypertension. Given the strong correlation between traffic congestion and higher blood pressure, the fact that communication between vehicles and road infrastructure will support traffic efficiency may prove to be a monumental health benefit. But most of all, the fully autonomous vehicle will significantly reduce the rate at which we see visits to the emergency room—over 2 million patients a year. The bandwidth freed up by the lives saved alone may allow healthcare facilities and trauma centers to redirect their efforts on other critical areas—not the least of which include harnessing new technology.

Haden Kirkpatrick is the Director of Marketing Strategy and Innovation at Esurance, where he is responsible for all initiatives related to product and service innovation. Haden is an early adopter of all things smart and brings this expertise to his writing. Find him on Twitter @HadenKirk.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

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