Child-detection safety technology may get mandate

The GMC Acadia’s Rear Seat Reminder, top, and Hyundai’s Rear Occupant Alert are two features that help prevent drivers from leaving children in vehicles.

TEL AVIV, Israel — U.S. lawmakers and European safety regulators are considering rules that could mandate “child presence detection” systems aimed at avoiding hot-car deaths of unattended children. That has suppliers scrambling to develop new systems for automakers, according to interviews with several high-tech suppliers at a recent industry conference here.

“Everybody is looking at this,” said Raviv Melamed, CEO of the Israeli firm Vayyar Imaging. “The moment you have regulation, things are going to move fast,” Melamed told Automotive News. “The timelines are very, very close.”

Vayyar is one of several vehicle technology suppliers working on child presence systems, as well as other forms of driver and occupant monitoring.

Such features already were attracting interest from consumers as vehicles take on more automatic safety tasks. But the prospect of new regulation for the technology is speeding up detection system development, according to interviews with suppliers here.

The closest deadline comes from the European New Car Assessment Program, popularly known as Euro NCAP, which issues crash-test ratings of up to five stars. Euro NCAP announced that starting in 2022, it will begin awarding rating points for child presence detection, “which can detect a child left alone in a car and alert the owner and/or the emergency services, to avoid heatstroke fatalities.”

‘Starting to see demand’

That plan is motivating automakers to seek solutions for the hot-car problem, said Liat Rostock, marketing vice president of Eyesight Technologies, based in Herzliya, Israel. “We are starting to see demand” from automakers, Rostock confirmed.

Ryan: Language in bill updated

There is also legislation for the technology currently before the U.S. Congress. The most recent is a bipartisan bill filed July 1 in the U.S. House by Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio, and Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York, called the Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats Act, or HOTCARS. A U.S. Senate version was filed in May.

Some automakers already offer features aimed at reducing the likelihood that someone could accidentally leave a child unattended in a back seat. General Motors was an early mover, introducing what it calls Rear Seat Reminder in 2016 with the 2017 model-year GMC Acadia, and then adding it to a long list of other models for 2017 and 2018.

The GM system is triggered when a rear door is opened and shut close to the time the car is started or while the car is running. The next time the car is shut off, the system sounds a chime and displays a message in the driver information center that reads “Rear Seat Reminder / Look in Rear Seat.”

Nissan North America added what it calls Rear Door Alert in 2017, starting with the 2018 Nissan Pathfinder. It plans to roll out the technology to all of its four-door models by the 2022 model year.

Nissan’s version also is activated by use of the back door. Besides a message in the instrument panel, Rear Door Alert honks the horn.

Sensors detect occupant

Hyundai Motor America offers an optional feature it calls Rear Occupant Alert, starting on its 2019 model year Santa Fe and 2020 Palisade. It uses “door logic” like GM and Nissan, but adds ultrasonic sensors in the vehicle’s headliner to detect movement in the rear seats. It also sends the driver a text message if there is no response to visual or audio alerts.

In the mushrooming Israeli auto technology sector, where some companies have roots in national defense and advanced security industries, still-more sophisticated systems are now in development. Instead of relying on door sensors, newer approaches incorporate visual or radar-type sensors in the front-seat headliner that detect the presence of a person in the back seat. The sensors are so precise they can identify an occupant by detecting a heartbeat. That will mean the safety system is aware of a person’s presence even if their face is not visible, for instance when a baby is quietly sleeping in a rear-facing child seat.

Ryan told Automotive News that the 2019 HOTCARS House bill doesn’t tell automakers what technology to use, but its language has been updated to reflect the newer technologies.

Dotan: Potential mandate helps

The bill specifically calls for a system “to detect the presence of an occupant,” as opposed to an alert that would simply direct the driver to check the back seat.

Tel Aviv-based Guardian Optical Technologies was founded in 2015 specifically to tackle hot-car deaths, said CEO Gil Dotan. The prospect of regulatory mandate is helping Guardian reach potential customers. Its technology uses an optical sensor that detects tiny movements — as small as one-millionth of a meter — and which are sensitive enough to pick up an infant’s heartbeat.

In the company’s earlier days, Dotan told Automotive News, it was a “the naive young team” who assumed automakers would automatically embrace the technology.

“Nowadays that’s changed,” he said of automaker interest. “Many out there understand this is a problem and they are interested in doing something about it.”

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