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Death in Hot Cars: Why Can't the Automakers Prevent the Danger?

Some 40 children die each year in overheated cars, but automakers have been unable to come up with a foolproof solution to preventing such tragedies
Morning sun on a car
Automakers have tried to tackle the problem of deaths related to hot cars, but so far have fallen short.Getty Images
/ Source: The Detroit Bureau

Kids dying in overheated cars. It's a problem automakers have tried to tackle, but so far failed to come up with a sure-fire solution.

General Motors tried over 10 years ago, but found the results were unreliable, while Ford is working on camera technology to monitor the inside of a vehicle but with no breakthrough yet. Auto safety groups have called for manufacturers to do more, but for several reasons -- cost, technology, liability and privacy issues -- there is still no foolproof way of preventing overheating deaths or warning of the possibility before they happen.

“Every heat-stroke death, every child's life lost in a hot car is a tragedy,” David Friedman, the acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told NBC News. It is also, he added, a “100 percent avoidable problem.”

“I don’t think the cost is as much a problem as the possibility of errors.”

One industry expert believes it shouldn't cost more than a few dollars per vehicle, given the sophisticated computers already on board cars. “I don’t think the cost is as much a problem as the possibility of errors,” said Dave Cole, Chairman-Emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Every year, an average of 40 people, mostly children, die inside vehicles baked by summer temperatures. The issue has been highlighted recently following the death of a Georgia toddler left in the car by his father, Justin Ross Harris, who has been charged with murder.

The auto industry has been aware of the problem for years. At the 2002 New York Auto Show, General Motors’ then-Vice Chairman Harry Pearce unveiled a system that, he said, would be able to detect the heartbeat of a child left in a car and then measure the vehicle’s temperature. If it was becoming dangerously hot, it would sound the horn to alert a parent or passersby.

"We are committed to putting this technology into production,” Pearce said, suggesting it might first show up on a GM minivan or SUV by 2004. But GM spokesman Alan Adler said the system was abandoned after it was found "not reliable enough to put into production."

Adler told NBC News he was “unaware of any technology in the works here for monitoring heated car interiors." Heather Rosenker, GM's Director of Public Policy and Government Relations Communications said: "We are not working on anything in this space."

Ford was among the other automakers who also expressed interest in developing such a system -– but a decade later, the technology isn’t available on any automobile as a factory standard feature or option.

Few aftermarket systems

There are a few aftermarket warning systems, such as the Childminder Smart Clip System, which alerts a parent if they’ve inadvertently wandered away from a child left in a safety seat or shopping cart or somewhere else. But federal regulators have questioned their efficacy.

"While we feel these devices are very well-intended, we don't think they can be used as the only countermeasure to make sure that you don't forget your child behind in a car," David Strickland, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief cautioned during a conference call in 2012.

One problem is that a quarter or more of the deaths occur when children let themselves into a hot vehicle without a parent’s knowledge.

"This can and does happen to the most loving, responsible and attentive parents.”

"This can and does happen to the most loving, responsible and attentive parents,” said Jannette Fennell, the founder of Kids and Cars, which has been lobbying for changes to laws –- and demanding that automakers introduce technology that can prevent hyperthermia deaths.

A recent study conducted for the non-profit Safe Kids Worldwide found 14 percent of parents admitted they’ve left a child in the car alone and 11 percent acknowledged they’d done so because they forgot the child was in the car. Meanwhile, the online survey found fathers three times more likely to leave a child behind than mothers.

Often, a parent or caregiver may be gone for just minutes, perhaps to run into a convenience store, but “Many people are shocked to learn that the temperature inside of a car can rise up to 20 degrees in 10 minutes and cracking a window doesn’t help,” said Kate Carr, president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide.

Cole, of the Center for Automotive Research, said the issue can raise questions about product liability and also privacy. “Most of the times it’s accidental, but a car turns into an oven before long in the hot sun. It’s not a problem to sense someone in the car, the question is how to do it reliably.”

But Cole said it would have to be 100 percent effective. "If you miss just one kid, if something doesn’t work properly, the implications are enormous. If you miss just one (kid) you have a liability issue.”

He also said there is a privacy concern. “A lot of people don’t want other people to know what’s happening inside the car. They want to blame something other than themselves."

Ironically, some of the technical features in cars today could make it easier to reach out to parents. Most GM vehicles are equipped with the OnStar system, which can alert authorities in the event of a crash severe enough to set off a vehicle’s airbags. Conceivably, if a reliable sensing system were in place, it could call for help, or alert parents, to a child locked inside a hot car.

Ford recently demonstrated one possible solution, dubbed Mobii. It would place several cameras inside a vehicle’s cabin. These could monitor if a motorist were growing sleepy while driving, for example, or tell if a thief broke into a car. But it might also use a temperature sensor and motion detector to detect a child at risk of heat stroke.

For now, experts suggest parents take several steps to keep their kids safe. Kids and Cars’ Fennell recommends putting a toy, like a stuffed animal, on the front seat as a reminder. NHTSA’s Friedman says parents should put something they need, perhaps a cellphone, in the back seat, next to the child.

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