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Always fasten your seatbelt, and your automotive wearables

By Brian S Hall / July 16, 2014

Always fasten your seatbelt, and your automotive wearables

An elderly man slipped into diabetic shock while behind the wheel. He slammed into several parked cars, careened into a gas station and smashed into the pump, which then exploded in a fiery plume. Miraculously, no one was killed, but six people were injured. Could a wearable device have prevented this? Yes.

Driving with a bionic pancreas

Wearables are about much more than logging our steps or tracking how many calories we’ve consumed. They can also save countless lives by making us better, safer drivers. Work on this is already well underway.

Ed Damiano, a biomedical engineer whose son has Type 1 diabetes, has developed a “bionic pancreas.” This small blood sugar monitor is taped to the wearer’s abdomen to transmit blood sugar data to their iPhone. The corresponding iPhone app then analyzes the data, determines the amount of insulin and glucagon the person needs at that time, then wirelessly communicates this message to two pumps, similar to those already used by diabetes patients.

The “bionic pancreas” monitors and manages the person’s blood sugar 24/7/365, even while they’re sleeping or behind the wheel of a car. This device is currently being tested with dozens of adult and adolescent volunteers. If all goes well, this wearable will reach a larger portion of the population, hopefully eliminating automotive accidents like the gas station crash once and for all.

Wearables are not the first line of safety while driving. At least, not yet. Traditional automobiles continue to add an array of truly amazing safety features, including:

  • Rear-mounted cameras that show the driver what’s behind them.
  • Backup sensors that beep when the car gets too close to an object.
  • Adaptive cruise control which adjusts the car’s speed to ensure a safe distance between vehicles.
  • Side-camera lights that flash on when another vehicle is in the driver’s blind spot.
  • Autonomous braking that first warns the driver then automatically stops the car to prevent a collision.

These newer features should make their way into more new cars at all price points in the coming years. In fact, the NHTSA has said all new cars must have rear-facing cameras by 2018.

The problem, however, is that new car tech can be extremely expensive. Just as important, even the latest auto safety features do not know the driver. Wearable tech does. Wearable devices are loaded with sensors, placed on the body, and in constant contact with our smartphones and the cloud. This affords a new layer of safety and awareness not previously possible.

There are millions of drivers in the US with diabetes that could benefit from a wearable bionic pancreas. There are also millions of elderly drivers. Last month in San Francisco, where wearables are commonplace among the digerati, two different elderly drivers crashed their vehicles into buildings within two days of one another.

A wearable device, alerting the driver—and his car—of an impending heart attack, might have prevented these incidents by enabling the car to safely stop. A wearable that alerts family members that their aging father has taken the car out, or has been driving longer than expected, might also prove useful. When it comes to the road, knowledge can be a true lifesaver.

No sleep till destination

Then there’s the problem of drivers falling asleep at the wheel. Automotive wearables can help here, too. There are already numerous wearables and smartphone apps designed to help us optimize our sleep. We should leverage these same devices, or at least utilize the same technologies, to alert motorists when they are overly tired. The many apps and devices we singled out in the above-linked report could be re-tooled to ensure that none of us ever falls asleep at the wheel again.

Text and shock

It’s even possible that automotive wearables might stop people from texting and driving, a continuously pressing and dangerous problem, despite legal regulations, media campaigns and social pressure.

The Pavlok “smart wristband” tracks the wearer’s activity and delivers an electric shock when they fail to appropriately act on their goals. Pick up a cigarette, for example, or consume too many potato chips, and the Pavlok bracelet will shock you. Let’s use this same tech for when any of us text and drive.

The Pavlok—think Pavlov’s dog—looks like a rugged Fitbit bracelet, but it can actually be programmed to monitor a variety of bad habits. Give in to temptation and receive a shock. Connect it with your Facebook account and each shock you receive gets posted onto your newsfeed, or can be texted to a friend or parent. Both shock and shame will help limit bad behavior, like a dog with a shock collar.


Two young women were seriously injured recently when they crashed their car, while taking selfies. It’s easy to mock the pair but doubtless thousands have engaged in similar behavior. Maybe a real-time shock is exactly what’s needed, even if articles, such as this recent piece in Business Insider, focus more on the “shock” value of Pavlok than its potential to re-make bad habits in real-time.

Consider that research suggests that 40% of our daily activities are based on habit, not conscious decision. A device like the Pavlok just might help all drivers keep their eyes on the road at all times. The Pavlok is expected to go on sale early next year, with a price below $250.

Being too helpful?

One concern with all this tech, however, is if our devices shock or alert us more often than necessary. A recent TechCrunch review of the new Android Wear smartwatch bemoaned the fact that the device kept alerting the wearer to every new text, new email, and calendar item that crosses their smartphone. It ultimately became a distraction, the very last thing a driver needs.

Change is coming

The combination of wearables and driving will no doubt require new regulations and new social norms. For example, can you wear Google Glass while driving?

A judge in San Diego recently overturned a traffic citation against Ceclia Abadie, who was driving while wearing Glass. Ms. Abadie was stopped by a cop for speeding, then additionally cited for violating California vehicle code 27602, which prohibits the use of a video-display in front of the driver’s head.

The law was designed to stop people from watching mobile television while driving. Should this apply to Google glass—and similar devices—that can display helpful traffic data and navigation instructions?

The judge ruled that there was a reasonable doubt that Ms. Abadie did not have Glass turned on at the time she was stopped, thereby setting aside the violation. However, it remains illegal to have Glass turned on while driving. In fact, Google’s Glass FAQ reminds users that “most states have passed laws limiting the use of mobile devices while driving any motor vehicle.”

Thinking outside the wrist

With CarPlay, Apple wants to integrate the iPhone experience into cars. Google has similar visions for its Android Auto service. Wearables will no doubt be a part of this equation.

Pebble has teamed with Mercedes on an experiment that delivers pertinent information onto the Pebble display. This is great, but it’s time for device makers to consider the breadth of functions, notification modes and bodily feedback that automotive wearables can theoretically provide, especially as we hurtle down the road at 70+ mph or need to slam on our brakes during rush hour. New ideas should be encouraged.

An MIT-developed bike helmet dubbed MindRider, might reveal yet another method of enhancing safety while driving. Although the helmet did not achieve its Kickstarter goal, despite an impressive amount of media coverage, the page continues to reveal the benefits of connecting our bodies and our minds to a wearable device.


Sensors, including an EEG (electroencephalograph) built into the MindRider bike helmet measure body movements and mental engagement, presenting this data in colorful bursts on our smartphone display. It’s like a mood ring for the mind. Imagine something similar—a simple headband or earbud, for example—that does the very same thing for a driver. When the device senses undue stress, it can speak to calm the driver and bring their attention back to the road.

The integration of wearables, sensors, Bluetooth, smartphones and apps into our vehicles could revolutionize driving safety. With over 35,000 estimated traffic fatalities taking place just last year, it’s never too soon to start making the roads safer for drivers. That is, until technology takes the wheel.

Learn more about the future of wearable tech by reading our Helpful Wearables Trend Report.