Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

A Life-Saving Jog to the Memory

An infant asleep in a car seat.
University of Waterloo researchers have developed an artificial intelligence-based sensor that can alert a driver he or she is leaving behind a forgotten child in a locked car.

Researchers at Canada's University of Waterloo have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) sensor that can alert a driver if he or she is leaving behind a forgotten child in a locked car.

"It addresses a serious worldwide problem," says George Shaker, a member of the research team and an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo.

At least 940 children in the U.S. have died in hot cars since 1990, according to Janette Fennell, founder and president of, a group seeking a federal law that would require auto manufacturers to install technology in cars that could warn adults they're leaving behind a child after they park.

Some members of Congress were so disturbed by reports of the needless deaths of children in locked cars that they have tried to legally require technology to be built into cars to prevent it from happening again.

In 2017, Congresspersons Tim Ryan (D-OH), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Peter King (R-NY) introduced the Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats Act (the HOT CARS Act of 2017), to require automakers to include technology in vehicles that would warn drivers about children left behind in a car.

" No child should endure the tragedy of dying while trapped in a hot vehicle," said Ryan. "Unfortunately, even loving and attentive parents can get distracted. Studies have shown that this can happen to anyone, anywhere."

Added Schakowsky, " It's not enough to educate parents about the risks. Even the most attentive parent can get distracted, so we need safety features built into our vehicles. A simple alert can save lives. You get a warning when you leave keys in the car. You should get a warning if you leave a child in the car."

A similar bill was introduced in the Senate last year by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Roger Wicker (R-MS).

Both bills were abandoned after the auto industry indicated its willingness to participate in a nonbinding, voluntary agreement to begin installing such technology in new vehicles beginning in 2025.

For's Fannell, that non-binding agreement is not nearly enough.

"We are all too familiar with the auto industry's propensity to announce their intention to add safety technology to their vehicles, but then never follow through on their commitments," Fannell wrote in a letter to U.S. Senator Roger Wicker after the auto industry released its nonbinding agreement.

Fannell's sentiment was echoed in a joint statement on the auto industry's nonbinding agreement from Schakowsky and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.):  "We appreciate that the automotive industry is finally recognizing what we have been saying for years: auto manufacturers can and should be doing everything they can to help parents prevent the hundreds of infant deaths caused by hot cars. While this is a big step in the right direction, the past has shown that voluntary commitments don't necessarily result in meaningful action. Congress must be vigilant and continue to pursue legislation that requires these companies to take the necessary steps to protect children and holds the companies accountable."

To date, no follow-up legislation has been introduced during the current session of Congress.

Fannell suggests having a government standard for technologies to prevent children from being left in hot cars would be preferable to the non-binding agreement. "Having a government standard, similar to rules on other lifesaving technologies in our vehicles, will ensure that there are minimum requirements and maximum benefits of effective technologies," Fannell says.

The University of Waterloo's answer to Fannell's call is a simple one. Specifically, the AI software-driven sensor works by sending out 77GHz radar signals to detect the number of animals and people in a car, information it uses to alert a driver if either is left behind after the car is parked. Should that potentially fatal oversight occur, the AI sensor sends a signal through the vehicle's electronics, instantly sounding an alarm and making it impossible for the driver to lock the car.

"Unlike cameras, this device preserves privacy, and it doesn't have any blind spots because radar can penetrate seats, for instance, to determine if there is an infant in a rear-facing car seat," Shaker says.

The technology is 100% effective, Shaker adds.

For the sensor's software, the research team relied on open source Python, according to Waterloo radar signal processing engineer Mostafa Alizadeh. The software runs on a 64-bit Windows 10 system featuring a Xeon CPU, E5-1603 v4 @ 2.4 GHz, according to Waterloo Ph.D. student Hajar Abedi.

According to Abedi, "Based on the features obtained from the sensor, the intelligent system distinguishes between living beings and inanimate objects by detecting subtle breathing movements, and shows the types of targets and their seat numbers. The smart sensor detects when a child or pet has been accidentally or deliberately left behind. In such cases, the system would prevent vehicle doors from locking and sound an alarm to alert the driver, passengers, and other people in the area that there is a problem."

The team decided in a radar-based approach, says Abedi, because "Mechanical sensors may fail to distinguish between humans and objects placed over the seat and, thus, are prone to false alarms." Also, "Camera-based systems and IR (infra-red) sensors are sensitive to illumination levels and sunlight, and suffer from obstructed line-of-sight conditions."

The AI radar system has low power requirements (it runs on a standard car battery), and is ready to be commercialized, according to the team. Alizadeh says the team is currently shopping it to an undisclosed auto manufacturer.

Overall, says Shufan Yang, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow specializing in computational Intelligent signal processing and system-on-chip design, "This research offers a reliable solution to this problem." However, Yang believes more testing should be done to ensure the radar used does not have any negative impact on the human body, especially when it comes to infants.

According to the American Cancer Society, most lab studies have concluded that RF waves (which radar uses) do not have enough energy to damage DNA directly. While a few studies have reported evidence of biological effects that could be linked to cancer, that potential link is still considered an area of research, according to the Society.

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan, NY, USA

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More