Sincerely Stefanie: Automakers Should Feel the Heat

Sept. 11, 2019
Vehicle manufacturers need to make child detection technology standard in all vehicles.

It’s September. Here in Ohio, the smell of fall is in the air. Condensation sits on the windows of cars left outside overnight. It’s jacket weather in the morning, and by mid-day short sleeves are the norm.

My best friend for the past 10 years, Napoleon Bone-aparte, begs to come for a ride. I want to take him, but I know I need to stop at the store and can’t leave him in the car, knowing the sun is still going to heat the interior to unbearable temperatures while I run in for a few minutes. 

For parents with errands to run or places to go, leaving a child at home is not an option. With changes in routines and schedules, dozens of sleeping children per year are forgotten in vehicles, leading to their untimely, heat-related deaths.

At the time of this issue’s publication, 35 children nationwide have died in hot cars. According to KidsandCars.org, a nonprofit dedicated to saving the lives of young children and pets in and around vehicles, 2018 was the worst year for documented hot car deaths, with a total of 53 fatalities. The organization also cited 62 pets that succumbed to hot car temperatures. 

These preventable deaths led to the development of a technology by General Motors back in 2001, but which has yet to be implemented nearly 20 years later. Why?

“We are targeting a sensor like this for certain vans and full-size utilities; we intend to begin this rollout in the 2004 calendar year, to alert caregivers or passersby about the presence of an unattended child in a potentially dangerous, hot vehicle,” said former GM vice chairman Harry Pearce in the initial announcement. 

The automobile manufacturer described the technology as a sensor focused on the rear seating area of a vehicle. The device detects a child or pet is present and triggers a “unique horn alarm” if temperatures have the potential to increase to potentially dangerous levels. “The sensor will then cause the horn to sound three distinct ‘chirps,’ similar to the ‘S’ in an SOS distress signal,” GM described.

On Aug. 13, 2019, 50 families implored Mary Barra, current CEO and chairman of General Motors, to implement the already-developed innovation as standard on all of its vehicles. The manufacturer currently offers a door sequencing system that provides a reminder to look in the rear seat, rather than the 2001 tech that actually detects the presence of a living being.

“The reminder system would not alert the driver at the final destination in a number of very common scenarios, which is deceptively dangerous,” the families wrote. 


“For example, if the driver stops for gas and the back door is not opened again while stopped, they will not receive the reminder alert when they arrive at their final destination. GM’s decision means that families are being denied a system that has the potential to save the life of a child.”

In an interview with EHS Today, KidsandCars.org Director Amber Rollins explains the convoluted process to requiring this feature in every automobile. 

 “It is much like any other safety feature that we have in our vehicles today. It will take an act of Congress to require it before the automakers will install it as standard equipment. And this is just historically how things have been handled,” she says. “I’m very sad that it takes that. Every safety feature that you see in your vehicle—seatbelts, airbags, stability control, backup cameras, safer power windows…the list goes on and on. They all had to be required in vehicles before we had them as standard equipment.”

As of 2018, Hyundai’s 2019 Santa Fe SUV was the first vehicle to offer a rear-seat motion detection system. The automaker plans to make the child-monitoring system standard on most of its new vehicles by 2022. Other manufacturers need to take charge ahead of any Congressional actions before more lives are lost.

“One of the reasons for that is because it costs the auto industry money to add a new feature to a vehicle,” Rollins says. “But they’re adding new features every day. We have air-conditioned seats now. What’s more important, having a cool tushy or a baby dying in a hot car? I mean, there’s really no excuse when the technology exists, why it’s not being used.”

Air-conditioned seats and pet-friendly cargo holds are a luxury. Even remote start is a convenience. It’s time to prioritize new safety technology that will protect children and pets.

About the Author

Stefanie Valentic

Stefanie Valentic was formerly managing editor of EHS Today, and is currently editorial director of Waste360.

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