Your Next Doctor Might Be Your Car

Your automobile is filled with tons of highly sensitive sensors that monitor the car. What if we turned those sensors on the passenger?

All cars are filled with hundreds of sensors, measuring everything from tire pressure to brake pad condition. Right now, though, you’re only aware of those sensors if something goes wrong and the car wants to notify you. That’s starting to change. Since 2010, the USC School of Cinematic Arts and BMW have been working on Nigel, a Mini Cooper outfitted with 230 sensors that creates a log of everything that happens in the vehicle, letting users see it all via an iPhone and iPad app. Now USC’s Center for Body Computing is getting in on the Nigel project, looking at how the car could be used to monitor driver health as well as vehicle health.


Nigel’s beginnings can be traced back to the Million Story Building, a project consisting of an iPhone app that let inhabitants of the School of Cinematic Arts building engage with the structure by tapping into its huge sensor network and displaying the information from within on the app. The idea: to figure out how the building could tell a story using data from sensors.

The same premise is behind the Nigel project. “We’ve been counting all instances of sensors being fired and figured out which sensors we used the most. An underlying narrative emerges over time,” explains Jen Stein, a design researcher at the School of Cinematic Arts. The app tallies up events, achievements, and milestones. It might tell you when you’ve used the right blinker for the 500th time, or whether you’re a lead foot on the brakes. There are easter eggs, too–when you have all your windows open at same time a message pops up saying “open to all things,” and when you have the seat heaters on and an open sun roof, you get a message saying “California winter.”

A layer of health sensors installed in the car could add a whole new dimension to the narrative. “I got a call from my car the other day to make a followup appointment because it needed some service. What if you could do that with your health?” wonders Dr. Leslie Saxon, chief of cardiovascular medicine at USC Keck School of Medicine and the executive director of the Center for Body Computing. “The stuff that sensors do for the car, maybe they could do for you. The car is very aware of its health, but we’re in the dark ages as drivers as far as our own.”

The Center for Body Computing is in the very early stages of working with Nigel, but Saxon says they are talking to sensor companies. One day, she imagines, a car’s pollution sensors, heart-rate sensors (maybe integrated into the steering wheel), GPS, and oxygen content sensors could all work together to tell drivers if, say, a certain polluted area of the highway affects their health–or if their heart rate goes up every time they arrive home or at the office.

USC isn’t the only institution working on novel uses for car sensors. Ford’s Silicon Valley lab is also in the early stages of figuring out how to tap all the data that emerges from vehicles. It may not be long before this data becomes available in some form to everyone.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.