The pros and cons of biometric car seats

Imagine you are driving late for an appointment and suddenly a car pulls up in front of you. When you step on the brakes, your seat, sensing your high stress, releases lavender scents and lowers the temperature. Biometric seats could make this our new reality. Yet, while fingerprints and facial recognition are increasingly ubiquitous in our phones and homes, biometrics has yet to become mainstream in our vehicles.


From detecting drowsiness to preventing theft, the seats of the future will offer many safety and security benefits. However, some risks and questions remain unanswered.


How do biometric seats work?

Biometric data is information collected about our body by various technologies. Biometric sensors fall into two broad categories: behavioral and physiological.

Behavioral sensors detect how you perform actions, such as how you type or how much pressure you apply when signing your name. Physiological sensors measure physical characteristics such as your face, hands, eyes, smell, and temperature.

Some physiological characteristics are more permanent than others. For example, while it is easy to change the color of your hair, colored contact lenses do not significantly impair biometric recognition of the iris.

Understanding what biometrics is and how it works is the first step in predicting its impact on automotive seats.

A behavioral sensor could monitor whether you tend to sit or move. It could detect your driving style by tracking how your legs move to brake and accelerate. A physiological sensor, on the other hand, could detect your buttock imprint. Yes, you read that right. It might sound a little weird, but biometric seats could identify us by our posteriors.

In 2011, researchers at the Advanced Institute of Industrial Technology in Tokyo designed seats with 360 pressure sensors to map the topography of the human buttocks. While you might wonder what happens if you gain or lose a few pounds, this technology, which eliminates the need for retinal or facial scans, was able to identify drivers with 98% accuracy.

Biometric seats will likely have behavioral and physiological sensors that triangulate their results via artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. However, even with the best machine learning architecture, there are practical issues. From a retail perspective, manufacturers will need to make seats that not only add value to the driving experience, but also have aesthetic appeal.

What will biometric seats look like?

No one is sure yet. Researchers are currently investigating the least intrusive ways for biometric seats to collect data. And while we can’t say exactly what they’ll look like, it’s easy to predict some biometric technologies they won’t include.

For example, electromyography (EMG), which measures the electrical activity of muscles and nerves, requires the insertion of needle electrodes. Few people would accept being hooked up to a bunch of electrodes for their daily commute, let alone having a needle inserted into their flesh.

The most likely scenario is that the sensors will be inside the seats. However, this has inherent limitations as some types of data collection require direct skin contact. For example, Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) measures changes in sweat gland activity and therefore wouldn’t work so well across your jeans.

This is why the biometric seats will be coupled with other technologies to form what is called a multimodal biometric system. For example, Ford’s algorithm for calculating the “driver’s workload estimator” relies on multiple inputs. There are sensors in the wheel to detect your heart rate and temperature. The seat belt is equipped with piezoelectric sensors, which convert pressure into electrical signals and monitor breathing rhythms. There’s even talk of fitting electrocardiograms (ECGs), which can track your heart’s electrical activity, into seat belts.

​​​​​​Combine all of this functionality with in-dash infrared cameras that detect pupil dilation and facial features, and it’s easy to imagine a world where our vehicles have more information in real time on our health than our doctors.

The advantages of biometric seats

It’s a regular occurrence: a headline about someone crashing into a storefront, with images of shattered glass and crumpled hoods. Sometimes these accidents are caused by vehicle malfunctions or driver distractions; other times, medical issues are the culprit.

National Road Safety Administration [PDF] (NHTSA) estimates that 1.3% of all car accidents are caused by medical emergencies. A seat that could warn you if you were about to have a seizure or heart attack would help prevent these tragedies. Besides medical emergencies, falling asleep at the wheel is a real danger.

An NHSTA survey reports that 37% of American drivers have had this terrifying experience. Biometric seats could anticipate drowsiness by monitoring body heat loss. In conjunction with cameras that monitor blink rate and facial expressions, your vehicle will notify you to stop or even take active steps to keep you awake, such as changing the air conditioning settings. If you do not react, your vehicle could bring you to a safe stop.

Besides drowsiness, driving under the influence is another cause of accidents. Apple filed a patent in 2021 for technology that could prevent you from driving while intoxicated using a personal breathalyzer. Overall, it’s reasonable to expect a future in which vehicles will have more functionality to detect when we’re not safe to drive. Biometric seats will work with these technologies to keep us safe.

Besides security, safety is one of the obvious advantages of biometric seats. Identifying a driver could not only eliminate the need for keys, but also make it more convenient to rent a car. But like all technologies, biometric seats could be a Faustian boon…

The potential dangers of biometric seats

Almost everyone clicks “Accept” without reading the tons of legal jargon describing how companies use our data. Even if you take the time to read it, the language is often ambiguous and you don’t know how your data will be used. Given the nature of biometric information, this poses a huge risk. In fact, biometric seats could threaten privacy at personal and societal levels.

Consider this dystopian scenario: your vehicle is hacked and your biodata is stolen. Armed with this highly personal information, a criminal unlocks your home, then your email. The possibilities are terrifying and it’s no wonder people wonder how secure biometrics really are.

On a large scale, what if health insurance premiums and car insurance premiums became linked? In some states, it is currently legal to base insurance premiums on credit scores. The actuarial rationale is that people with lower credit scores have a higher accidental potential. What if AI finds a link between certain health conditions and the likelihood of filing a claim? Even if a valid statistical correlation existed, it would punish individuals with perfect driving records simply based on their health.

On a day-to-day logistical level, there are likely to be challenges, especially depending on how the technology is deployed at scale. For example, in the case of identity verification, there must be an initial registration where the vehicle learns to recognize your features, whether it’s the texture of your iris or your butt print. Mistakes are bound to happen, and just as automatic speech recognition technology continues to struggle with non-native accents, some people are likely to have more headaches than others.

What future for biometric seats?

From airports to trains to vehicles, biometric technologies promise increased security and convenience. When this will become commonplace remains up for debate. While there are already some impressive automated vehicle security technologies that save lives, automotive biometrics is a new frontier. The technology will likely appear in high-end vehicles and then trickle down to more affordable models.

From verifying identity to monitoring physical and psychological states, biometric seats have the potential to change the way we live. Since this technology has the potential to save and destroy lives, it will need to be regulated by ironclad security protocols. Consumers must demand transparency and understand what they are sharing, with whom and why.

The future will be exciting as automotive biometric technologies are integrated into the autonomous vehicles and smart cities of tomorrow.

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