Why tech still can't save kids in hot cars

In spite of recent innovations, preventing this one's still on you.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, smart home, digital health. Credentials
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Brian Cooley
3 min read

Carmakers have come up with cool advancements like keyfobs that limit radio volume when a teen is driving and sunroofs that lower themselves at highway speed to reduce wind noise. Yet kids are still dying in hot cars that can't seem to do much to help them. I get a lot of emails asking why this is the case.

There has been progress in the last year: GM Rear Seat Reminder has been available in about 20 of its models since it debuted on the 2017 GMC Acadia, and Nissan is launching Rear Door Alert in the 2018 Pathfinder. 


General Motors Rear Seat Reminder feature is available in about 20 models across its brands.

General Motors

Both systems use sensors to notice if a rear door was opened before a trip, but not at the conclusion of it and then alert the driver with a warning light or beep to check the rear seat area. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) has introduced legislation that would require new cars sold from 2019 have systems of this type.

These are good but not powerful improvements: Human nature is to ignore repeated general reminders, and the systems can be switched off entirely by the owner -- perhaps one who may not have kids and likes to stash stuff in the back seat, unharassed.

A smarter system was envisioned by Intel and Ford back in 2014. The Mobii prototype placed cameras around the car that would use image recognition to know what they see, discriminating a bag from a child and producing a specific, and therefore compelling, alert. Combined with the other benefits such a system could deliver (such as theft prevention, drowsiness and inebriation detection, settings customization and intelligent dash cam) I think this approach is a matter of when it will arrive, not if. But when isn't now.

Startup Sense A Life is raising funds on Kickstarter to develop a kit that adds a weight sensor and transmitter to a child seat, and a receiver alongside the driver's seat. It detects when you leave the car but the child's weight doesn't, resulting in an alert on your phone or message to other guardians if you ignore it.  

But why are we saddled with add-on kits or vague detection algorithms from only a couple of carmakers? 

  • It's not that simple. When several kids died while playing in hot car trunks in the late 90s, carmakers were required to install glow-in-the-dark inside trunk releases (no, those weren't inspired by "The Sopranos"). But that's a situation with a kid old enough and aware enough to know they need to get out of danger.
  • We put kids in this situation with passenger seat airbags that were too powerful for kids to be seated in front of. New rules required kid seats be in the back where they are safe from airbag force but not from being forgotten.
  • Prioritizing safety advances can be a cold calculation. An average of 37 kids die each year after being left in hot cars, according Professor Jan Null of San Jose State University, and only about half of them due to the kind of forgetfulness the new technologies aim to cure. It's a massively tragic situation, but about 0.05 percent of automotive fatalities in 2016.
  • Risk management is key and carmakers are loathe to install any new safety technology that isn't bulletproof. Product liability lawsuits can result from safety tech that either doesn't work 100 percent of the time or isn't understood by drivers 100 percent of the time. As far as I know, carmakers currently have no liability in cases of kids forgotten in hot cars.
  • New tech goes in new cars. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, suggests any tech required in new cars won't reach the cash-strapped young parents who need it most but likely drive an older car. The alliance advocates education and simple steps like putting your phone in the back with your child - you'd never forget your phone, the thinking goes, which paints both a sad and true situation.

The ingredients to solve this problem are congealing, however: Sensors, GPS, connectivity and even cameras in the cabin are quickly becoming ubiquitous, and as they begin to deliver a variety of profitable services, smart child and pet detection will come along for the ride. Meanwhile, an alert made public and a tire iron can be the best we've got.