KU students working on a car to guard your health

As the digital revolution races onward, Gregory Thomas sees much of its technology converging on cars. Computers, radar, Wi-Fi, cameras, you name it.

Clump it all together, throw in some state-of-the-art medical technology and cars could go a quite a way toward keeping an eye on a driver’s health or bringing the doctor’s office right to his house.

As a professor of design at Kansas University and director of the school’s Center for Design Research, Thomas is overseeing two groups of students working to make all that a reality.

One group is researching the construction of a prototypical WellCar — an ultramodern vehicle for nurses to use for the retro practice of making house calls to immobile patients living in rural, relatively remote areas.

Concept design of the WellCar, by Kansas University senior David Blizzard.

The second is examining how glucose-monitoring technology for diabetics could be placed within a car. The idea: An alarm would sound when the driver’s blood sugar gets too low, providing time to pull over before hyperglycemia sets in.

Diabetics face a 12 to 19 percent increased risk in experiencing a car accident, according to the American Diabetes Association.

The two projects, both of which kicked off this fall semester, have industry support as well, from Bayer Healthcare, Sprint and others. That means plenty of gadgetry to play around with.

“All we’re doing is bundling things,” Thomas said one Tuesday afternoon on the Center for Design Research’s mini-campus, retrofitted from an old farmstead, off Bob Billings Parkway. “The only thing we’re inventing is the concept.”

The WellCar would primarily function as a way to treat and diagnose patients in areas such as western Kansas and remote areas in Nebraska, Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle, where people may not have easy access to physicians.

According to the KU Institute for Policy & Social Research, nine Kansas counties have no working doctor and dozens more have too few.

Kansas University professor Gregory Thomas.

With the WellCar, Thomas said, a healthcare practitioner would arrive at a patient’s house, take samples and send them to a hospital for diagnostics. Results would be relayed back to the WellCar.

“There are people who aren’t ambulatory and we think this is going to fill a very nice niche,” he said.

Meanwhile, the health-monitoring car wouldn’t only serve as an accident-prevention technology. Thomas, who has Type 2 diabetes, said that too often diabetics are careless about checking their blood sugar, and so a car that forces a driver to do it can create better habits.

“We want it to be more than just a watchdog for [accidents], we want it to be a tool,” he said.

A prototype for such a car won’t come out of Thomas’s class, however. The project will only last until December, when his students will present concept designs to Bayer.

Thomas said he hopes to apply for grants next year, finish a prototype in fall 2015 and be on the road by the following winter.

“You talk about science fiction,” Thomas said with a smile, “this is it.”