New Cars Tell Drivers to Calm Down, Take Breaks

Remember when the first talking GPS systems were installed in cars, and people thought they were a great idea? But then folks got pretty annoyed when they’d miss a turn and the insistent-but-polite GPS voice — which sounded pretty similar to your mother when she was being passive-aggressive — would continually repeat instructions to turn around and get back on track. (And, by implication, let you know that you were an idiot for being unable to follow a simple set of instructions.)

Well, we’ve made peace with the good old GPS, but here’s a new addition that may be a blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view: biometric monitors. However, instead of telling you where to go, they read your body and tell you or the car how to behave. This isn’t some strange or silly science fiction concept, either. Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus are among the companies researching how to take us down that road.

In a story from American Public Media’s radio show Marketplace, reporter Bob Moon looks into the new technology. From sensors embedded in the steering wheel that can measure how sweaty your palms are, to seat belts that monitor breathing rates, these devices can not only tell when you’re feeling stressed or agitated, but signal the car to do something about it. This response could be everything from keeping your cell phone from ringing during stressful traffic situations, to gently instructing you do some breathing exercises.

“They’re not designed as medical-grade sensors,” says Ford technician Jeff Greenberg. “We are not going to turn the car into an FDA-certified medical device.” He stresses that designers are focused on being helpful, not invasive.

Now the big question: If a car offered a built-in breathalyzer to test whether or not you were inebriated before getting behind the wheel, would you see that as an asset?

Check out the full audio report from Marketplace below.