Research & Innovation

Interdisciplinary Seniors Develop Heart Driver System

Senior design project for autonomous vehicle monitoring and response

Group of Stevens seniors who developed Heart Driver
From left to right: Dylan Boyle, Kaitlyn O'Connor, Timothy Cavagnaro, Robert Basciano

An interdisciplinary group of Stevens seniors have developed Heart Driver, an autonomous vehicle monitoring and response system to detect the incidence of medical emergencies for automobile operators. 

Driving a motor vehicle is a cognitively complex task related to multiple functions, many of which are compromised or greatly diminished by distractions such as texting, eating or changing the radio and frequently result in preventable traffic accidents.

However, more tragically, those who suffer the sudden onset of unconsciousness can also cause serious accidents.  In fact, drivers with diabetes, epilepsy and cardiovascular disease (CVD) average twice as many crashes per 1,000,000 miles of driving, compared to drivers without such conditions.

Currently, more than 140,000 automobile accidents occur every year in the U.S. due to a sudden heart attack, seizure or other debilitating physiological episode that can occur behind the wheel.

Pre-empting tragedy with detection and response system

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that heart disease is presently the most common cause of death in North America. As such, heart attacks have become increasingly more prevalent—including on the road.

Stevens electrical engineering students, Robert Basciano and Dylan Boyle, along with mechanical engineering students, Timothy Cavagnaro and Kaitlyn O'Connor have implemented sophisticated pulse sensors into the steering wheel of an automobile to dial 911, slow the car and pull over to the road’s shoulder should the driver become unconscious or severely debilitated for any reason.

Heart Driver consists of sophisticated, active electrocardiograph sensors that are embedded in the steering wheel with which the driver has constant contact. The sensors track the driver’s heart rate and detect abnormalities and deviations that may be caused by a seizure, heart attack, stroke or other emergent episode.

“We had to work within budget constraints—we 3D printed the steering wheel cover as all one part with channels chamfered in for the wiring,” says Basciano. “It’s one cohesive system—the circuitry constitutes the majority of the assembly.”

“Ergonomics was definitely a big part of our project,” add Cavagnaro and O’Connor. “It has to be comfortable; it has to look really nice, as well as abide by federal regulations. It’s a medical device, but won’t change the look and feel of the vehicle.”

“Heart Driver would help those who have pre-existing conditions, and everyone else on the road,” says O’Connor.” “It’s a failsafe against unpredictable catastrophes. Many people don’t know they’re sick until they experience symptoms.”

"This project is a great example where the technology is used to save lives,” adds mechanical engineering professor and faculty advisor, Marahelli Prasad. “This team demonstrates very well the interdisciplinary nature of the project in which both mechanical and electrical engineering students work closely to the bring this life-saving idea into reality.”

While some passenger trains use a kill switch to automatically halt the vehicle, automobiles currently have no such mechanism. They do, however, use autonomous technologies that can be easily integrated with Heart Driver, which the seniors anticipate will make the system highly marketable to auto manufacturers, along with its modest price point.

In fact, Boyle explains, approximately 70% of vehicles sold today have standard equipment that could be synthesized with Heart Driver. “All of those systems taken together comprise an autonomous vehicle control system—a responsive detection system, which taps into the autonomous capabilities of the vehicle,” says Boyle.

Heart driven, in more ways than one

“The HeartDriver project may very well set the next trend in car safety standards,” says faculty advisor, Maxine Fontaine, teaching assistant professor in mechanical engineering. “It has been a real pleasure working with these students-- this group exemplifies true interdisciplinary teamwork.”

“I was really interested in automotive technologies,” says Cavagnaro. “I went to Kaitlyn, because she’s interested in pharma, in the medical industry—we set our own goals and came up with the idea. We were already friends, and brought in our other friends and electrical engineers, Dylan (who also minors in computer science) and Robert.”

The group faced major challenges when fifth group member and electrical engineering major Bryan Fitzpatrick died suddenly due to a tragic accident, and to whose memory the project is dedicated.

“Bryan created one of our major subsystem designs,” says O’Connor. “”He always kept things light and was always positive.”

“It took us a while to recover from the loss,” explains Cavagnaro. “Our memory of Bryan gave us extra incentive to continue with the project. We greatly miss him."

Cavagnaro describes his motivations to pursue the project as being highly personal. “I had a friend who was afraid of driving after experiencing a medical episode behind the wheel,” he explains. “She didn’t want to drive again—and didn’t drive for a few years—but now she has more courage.”

"With Heart Driver, you can still live your life and don’t have to be isolated. You have the freedom to go places if you want to,” says Cavagnaro.

The students will also take part in the upcoming Innovation Expo on April 27, 2016.

To learn more about the project, please visit the group's video pitch: