Automakers Never Developed Technology to Stop Hot Car Deaths

Washington Post Blogs

August 27, 2014

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Thirteen years ago, in the spring of 2001, General Motors (GM) announced that it was working on a new technology that would help prevent the unthinkable: the deaths of children forgotten by their parents in hot cars.

The radar sensor, GM said then, would be so sensitive that it would be able to detect the breathing of a sleeping baby strapped into a car seat, and then sound an alarm to alert passersby if the car got too hot.

"GM is moving quickly today to address this serious safety problem," then-GM Vice Chairman Harry Pearce pledged at the time, saying that the automaker planned to start rolling out the sensors in certain vehicles by 2004.

But the technology never went anywhere. It just wasn't reliable enough, GM spokesman Alan Adler explained this week. "We've never been able to do it when it's 100% effective," Adler said.

Since GM announced the now-abandoned sensor technology, at least 520 children have died from heatstroke in cars, including at least 23 so far this year, according to Jan Null, who keeps statistics on hot car deaths.

This summer, on the same day a national public service campaign was being launched to warn parents about the dangers of leaving kids in hot cars, a 10-month-old girl died in Wichita, KN, after being left in a vehicle that was parked outside her foster parents' house. "I left her in the car, she's dead. She's dead," police heard the girl's father say in multiple phone calls.

Today, GM isn't working on any new technologies to prevent hot-car tragedies. (The company is focusing on education around the issue instead.)

Neither is Ford, according to spokeswoman Kelli Felker, although NBC News reported last month that the automaker's new camera technology could be used for heatstroke prevention.

Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne wouldn't talk about that automaker's future product plans.

NASA engineers have tried to address the problem, too, but couldn't find a manufacturer. Children's merchandise-makers Tomy and Baby Alert have products on the shelves, but they haven't gained market traction. No products have earned the support of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which does not formally regulate the development of heatstroke prevention devices.

So why haven't automakers and other big manufacturers heeded calls from the public safety group Kids and Cars to come out with technological solutions to help prevent the deaths of an average of 38 children a year?

The reasons are many: reliability issues, liability risks, the cost, the absence of clear regulatory guidelines—and, perhaps most critically, the apparent lack of demand.

"No one wants to be standing in Toys R Us with the 'I'm going to forget my baby' monitor in the checkout line," said Kristy Arbogast, co-scientific director for the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Arbogast was the principal investigator on a 2012 study that found that the handful of aftermarket hot-car death prevention technologies on the market were "inconsistent or unreliable."

As hot-car deaths—and near-misses—continue to make headlines, individual entrepreneurs have been trying to come up with inventions that might prevent future tragedies. Often with little or no funding, parents, teens and other would-be problem-solvers are developing a flurry of technologies intended to stop hot-car deaths.

Here are a few of their ideas:

These technologies use pressure and motion detectors to alert parents about a forgotten child in the back seat—but most of them are still looking for funding.

A South Florida father has patented the Aneiros Child Car Seat Safety System, a car seat that can alert parents and even activate the air conditioning to cool down a forgotten child. He's launched a crowdfunding campaign to move onto the manufacturing stage.

An Albuquerque teen expanded her winning eighth-grade science project into Hot Seat, a car-seat alarm system that uses a pressure sensor pad linked to a parent's key fob to sound alarms, if necessary. She raised more than $20,000 in crowdfunding this summer to build a prototype.

An Alabama father developed Starfish, a weight-activated car seat sensor that sends parents a smartphone alert if they stray too far from their car. The project needs nearly $8,000 in Kickstarter funding in the next nine days to get the product into manufacturing.

Worried about forgetting your baby in the back seat? There's an app for that.

In July, a North Carolina couple launched Precious Cargo, which connects with a car's Bluetooth device to set off an alarm for parents when they turn off the car.

A Tennessee father recently launched an app called Remember the Kids, which uses an algorithm to track a driver's movements. The app sends an alert asking "Did you Remember the Kids?" whenever a parent stops moving for several minutes.

Not all heatstroke prevention devices rely on sophisticated technology.

A Tennessee middle-school student designed the E-Z Baby Saver, a make-it-yourself chain of rubber bands that straps from the driver's door to the back seat door, physically stopping parents in their tracks as they exit the car.

Some child safety advocates also recommend that parents leave a shoe or briefcase in the back seat to help them remember their children before leaving the car.

Don't expect any of these new technologies to gain the NHTSA's endorsement anytime soon.

In an e-mailed statement, the federal agency said: "For NHTSA, for automakers or a caregiver to consider relying on any technology it would have to be reliable enough to save lives. The technology is not there yet." The agency said it will issue another evaluation of heatstroke prevention technologies in upcoming months. For now, NHTSA said, parents should stay vigilant and take precautions.

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