Some of the most creative and innovative consumer products that have been introduced to the market in recent years are designed to use smartphone technology to save time, or money.
St. Louisan Bob Steffen’s creation is using smartphone technology to save lives.
Steffen and the team at Cars-N-Kids have invented a smartphone-enabled monitoring system for child car seats. Their hope is that the invention prevents young children from dying in cars that are dangerously hot or cold. The monitor also is designed to alert parents of older kids who unbuckle themselves while the car is moving. “The fact of the matter,” says Steffen, “is that 43 children died across the country last year from being left in an automobile. And there are literally tens of thousands that have been injured from being unrestrained in their seats.”
The team has been working on the product since 2007. They began after reading news reports about a 7-month-old girl who died after being left in a hot car at the Washington University Medical Center. They saw the need for their creation again last summer, when a 23-month-old O’Fallon, Illinois boy died while strapped into a car seat in his father’s automobile. Steffen launched Cars-N-Kids to create a pressure-sensitive device that is now built into a car seat manufactured by Japanese company Tomy International.
The smartphone app, available for iPhone and Android devices, communicates with a sensor inside the car seat to send phone alerts if a child is left in a car seat for several minutes after the vehicle has stopped moving. The system also sends alerts if a child becomes unbuckled, if the car seat is improperly positioned, or if the temperature inside the car gets too hot or too cold. If the parent or driver doesn’t respond to the alerts, the system sends messages to other emergency contacts. While the app is free, it currently only works with the First Years’ True Fit iAlert car seat, which costs about $350.
For parents for whom that price is prohibitive, Steffen says his company’s next offering should eliminate any doubts about cost-effectiveness. “We are, right now, in launch phase of a standalone unit that will fit on any car seat.” says Steffen “It’s still three months from market, but it will include a pad that goes on the bottom of any car seat, which will connect to the monitor on the back of the seat that will talk to the smartphone. We’re looking at a retail price of around $39.”
That is a potential game-changer for the company, says Steffen. The picture becomes even more promising for Cars-N-kids next month, when the team is scheduled to meet with engineers who operate the General Motors OnStar program, to talk about the potential of integrating the St. Louis team’s technology into the popular GM in-vehicle security and navigation feature. Steffen’s clearly excited about that possibility. “Not only could an OnStar operator observe the condition of the child in the car, they could start the car, turn the air conditioning or heat on in the car remotely, they could open the car doors for first responders if they are needed to be brought in. When this system is incorporated into the car’s dashboard, it’s going to offer some really great things.”
Steffen says such a system would have saved the life of a child who died several years ago in a hot car on a parking lot in Texas. A passerby saw the child, then went to find a security guard to rescue the infant. By the time the two found the car again, the child had died.
Steffen says the latest developments for his company are encouraging. When he began his entrepreneurial journey six years ago, the picture was not as bright, as — like many entrepreneurs – he faced challenges in convincing potential investors to back the project. But, he says, he never wavered from his product, or it’s necessity. “My background and the teams is in the car industry, We know the dangers of motor vehicles. It’s why manufacturers put a warning light on your dashboard to remind you, the adult, to buckle your seatbelt. Of course we should be doing the same thing for our kids.”