The potential for cars to tune into their drivers’ emotions is being explored by manufacturers, who believe the development could make driving safer.
Biometric sensors integrated into a car could let the vehicle understand when a driver is tired or stressed – then issue prompts or alerts, or take over the wheel in extreme circumstances.
Cars could combine facial recognition technology with sensors tracking pulse, breath rate and sweat.
Scientists at Ford are collaborating in an EU-funded project developing driver-assistance systems where cars would recognise human emotional states as well as road conditions.
Ford demonstrated an early concept prototype, a customised Ford Focus RS, in London yesterday, which lit up according to the mood of its driver, who was wired up with fitness trackers and skin sensors.
A computer then interpreted the biometric data to make thousands of LED lights in the side windows flicker along with the driver’s stress levels.
On a cold, wet day, and under the tuition of stunt driver Paul Swift, the Guardian put the Focus through its paces – with every bead of sweat illuminated in patterns on the windows.
A succession of barely controlled doughnut manoeuvres culminated with a panicked lurch and the Focus flashed a brilliant white.
“That was what we call a ‘buzz moment’, a peak moment of emotional activity,” said Dr Cavan Fyans, chief technology officer of Sensum, a Belfast-based “empathic technology” company which souped up Ford’s car.
“Your heart rate was elevated by 25%, your galvanic skin response was up by 25% – about one microsiemens.”
Such moments, Fyans said, are good for the driver – a claim which Ford is using to shift more sports cars.
But, he said, the applications will go beyond that. “If you’re stressed, nervous, distracted, we can detect these things. This is a big emerging market. A lot of manufacturers are working out how to humanise the technology … a self-driving car which knows how you are feeling could reassure a stressed passenger, or if you’re happy about it being in control, just do its thing.”
Dr Marcel Mathissen, a research scientist for Ford in Aachen, Germany, said: “There are people for whom these kind of technologies are a voodoo thing. But acceptance will grow.”
Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent The Guardian