- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2001

General Motors Corp. announced yesterday it is developing a radar technology to prevent heat stroke in children and animals left in automobiles on hot days.

The radar detects the presence of people or animals by their normal movements, such as eyelids blinking, mouths moving or chests inhaling and exhaling. A second device monitors temperature inside the vehicles.

When the temperature rises too high while children or animals are inside, the device sounds three short blasts, or "chirps," of the automobile horn.

"We have many parents who are unaware how quickly a vehicle heats up," said General Motors Vice Chairman Harry Pearce.

The horn blasts are intended to alert persons nearby of an emergency, hopefully compelling them to open a car door, summon emergency personnel, or maybe even break open a window.

Children up to 3 years old represent the greatest risk, Mr. Pearce said. "Their small bodies would absorb more heat from the environment," he said. "The results can really be deadly."

He said the price, which has not yet been determined, would not add significantly to the cost of vehicles.

Potentially fatal heat stroke can occur when the body reaches 105 degrees. The greenhouse effect that traps sunlight can make a small car on a 95-degree day reach 160 degrees in as few as 20 minutes, according to General Motors. Even on mild days with temperatures in the 70s, car interiors can heat up as much as 120 degrees.

"It easily gets hot enough here," said Christina Johns, a pediatrician at Washington's Children's Hospital. "All through the summer, the temps are hot enough."

Children suffering heat stroke frequently end up in the Children's Hospital emergency room and requiring intravenous fluids, she said.

"What would be nice about this system, if it works, is that if you can catch it early, you can really prevent a lot of bad outcomes from brain injury," Dr. Johns said.

Movements inside vehicles would be monitored with low-frequency Doppler radar similar to the radar used by meteorologists that can detect even tiny motions. The radar would operate only when the engine is turned off, but draw a small amount of electricity from the battery, roughly the equivalent of a cell phone. It would be installed overhead, in about the same position as an interior car light, and aimed primarily toward the rear seats where child safety seats normally are placed.

"We would presume that adults would adjust the ventilation system to make themselves comfortable, whereas a child can't," said Bob Lange, General Motors' safety engineering director, at a downtown press conference.

Adults with medical conditions that render them immobile or unconscious such as victims of paralysis, heart attacks or fainting spells also could benefit, Mr. Lange said.

General Motors hopes to install the first devices as options for minivans, beginning in 2004. In later years, they might be installed in all General Motors vehicles, the company said. No other automaker is currently working on the same technology.

Eventually, General Motors plans to link the monitoring system to its On-Star system. On-Star refers to the Global Positioning System of satellites that allows members to communicate with a nationwide control center from their automobiles in an emergency.

The interior radar device would automatically sound an alarm at the control center when there is a risk of heat stroke, alerting the On-Star personnel to the location of the vehicle and the need to telephone for emergency assistance.

Mr. Lange conceded the device might raise privacy concerns, but said they were not a serious consideration.

Art Spitzer, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, agreed.

"It sounds to me like a voluntary thing," Mr. Spitzer said. "If somebody doesn't want it in their car, then they can disable it. If that's true, then I don't see why there's any problem."

Mr. Lange said General Motors' researchers reviewed newspaper articles for 1996 through 2000 and found 120 heat-stroke deaths among children shut in automobiles. He suspected the actual number was higher but that more detailed records were unavailable.

Among the bugs General Motors still plans to work out are "dead zones," such as the floor behind the rear seat, where the radar would have difficulty detecting children's presence. Company officials also have not decided the threshold temperature for sounding the horn, or how long the horn chirps will continue.

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