Volvo's "Heartbeat Sensor"

Here’s a great example of security theater:

The Personal Car Communicator (PCC) is your car key’s smart connection with your Volvo S80 applying the latest in two-way radio technology. When in range, you’ll always know the status of your car. Locked or unlocked. Alarm activated or not. If the alarm has been activated, the heartbeat sensor will also tell you if there is someone inside the car. The PCC also includes keyless entry and keyless drive.

I’ll wager that it will sell, though, because it taps directly into people’s fears.

Does anyone know how it works? Sound? Something else?

Posted on March 20, 2007 at 10:46 AM60 Comments


Keith March 20, 2007 11:22 AM

It seemed to me this was a comical feature for a couple reasons. How good is the typical security on the Volvo that I have to worry someone might have broken in and hidden inside? More importantly, what good are the windows for if I cannot see through them? The feature likely adds costs to the car and I can imagine many other features I would rather have than a heartbeat sensor for the money.

Autoworld reported that “The heartbeat sensor registers the vibration of a beating heart – both human and animal” and I would guess that partially answers your question.


Andre LePlume March 20, 2007 11:47 AM

Child gets heatstroke in locked Volvo.
Volvo gets lawsuit from parent due to failed “heartbeat sensor”.
Heartbeat sensor disappears.

Software liability in action, Bruce! :^)

Stephan Samuel March 20, 2007 11:54 AM

I don’t know anything about what Volvo did, but I do know two things:

1) my truck has a passenger-side airbag sensor that seems to be based on weight, and,

2) I have a heart rate monitor that requires a chest strap, moisture, a working battery and some fairly complicated technology to work.

I doubt Volvo perfected something that their friends making heart rate monitors in Finland couldn’t for the last 10 years. As for knowing if the car is locked, I know whether my car is locked or not because I lock it, or I don’t. With Lojack recovery rates as high as they are, this system seems rather useless.

Peter March 20, 2007 11:55 AM

Holy cow, that thing’s expensive! Still, as I can tell you from many years of watching movies, this will pay off. As we all know, murderers love to hide in the back seats of cars, and they are completely invisible there. Up to now, I’ve relied on poking a stick into the apparently empty air behind the driver’s seat to make sure no one’s there in the morning… I’ve been yearning for a high-tech solution to this problem.

Now, if someone would just get working on a Godzilla detector, I could rest easy.

Cassandra March 20, 2007 12:18 PM

@Stephan Samuel

All you need is a sensitive accelerometer or two and some signal processing software. Already used by what was Customs & Excise and is now “Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs” at Dover to try and reduce the number of illegal immigrants coming into the UK. See here: and here: which are probably both extracted from the same press release.

Hospitals used to use the same idea before cheap electronic methods came in – they would strap the patient to a suspended platform and mechanically amplify the movement of the platform to get a trace on a drum of paper. It’s called a ballistocardiogram (BCG) rather than ECG (electrocardiogram) – see here: to see that I’m not having you on. Also, Google for ballistocardigraphic or ballistocardiogram.


Costas March 20, 2007 12:29 PM

I would guess that they are picking up electric signals similar to those used for ECG, this is the same principle used for heart beat monitoring in sports. It just needs a very sensitive “antenna”.

Come to think of it, though, being an engineer I always look for the simple solution. It is very simple and cheap to use infrared sensors inside the car, so there is absolutely no need to try and pick the signal from somebody’s heart.
So, my conclusion is that this is pure marketing BS, and they use something very simple such as infrared.

Joseph March 20, 2007 12:31 PM


That’s fascinating about the Ballistocardiogram. I had never heard of that before.

derf March 20, 2007 12:43 PM

How does this protect us from gargoyles, demons, zombies, vampires, skeletons, or other undead slasher personas hiding in the backseat?

When will they release a “someone cut your brake line” sensor that warns you before you get on a steep hill?

When will they release a “someone wired an explosive to the ignition” sensor or a “someone planted a remotely detonated explosive to the undercarriage” sensor that warns you in time to save you from the boom? The Boston police version would be a “blinking LED” sensor.

We need MORE protection from Hollywood plots before we can consider ourselves safe.

cmarnold March 20, 2007 1:10 PM

Aside from my feelings that there hasn’t been a solid Volvo since the 740 I’m constantly amused by the “features” being added since Ford purchased Volvo cars. They recently introduced a Bluetooth hub for the XC90 (and probably the S80). I can just imagine the Volvo car lot where every car’s Bluetooth master starts page scanning and running up and down the channel range.

Given the range of the PPC, it wouldn’t surprise me if it were ZigBee-based. What with all of the existing sensors in a vehicle (weight in seat, tension on safety belts, etc. all being used to control air bag deployment) it doesn’t seem like it would be a difficult thing to implement. If the OnStar service can use its GPS to locate your stolen car or push instructions to unlock the doors, it probably wouldn’t be long until it can actively monitor your car in other ways.

Hmmm…it seems like the Volvo engineers simply extended the Volvo private MIB and added bi-directional wireless SNMP polling and traps.


rapier57 March 20, 2007 1:16 PM

This technology is probably based on active RFID. Completely unsecure and hackable, almost trivial to copy and duplicate. More of the same is currently coming from your banks and in US and UK passports.

meeters March 20, 2007 1:19 PM

What about dead people. Can it detect when the heart beat stops? I really want to know if there is a dead person in the back seat of my Volvo on a dark, rainy night. Or in my trunk, sometimes I don’t open my trunk for weeks at a time.

cmarnold March 20, 2007 1:20 PM

Security theater indeed. According to LoJack (quoting the US FBI), Volvo vehicles haven’t made the top ten stolen vehicles in the US


2005 Top 10 Stolen Vehicles in U.S. (Released 11/06)

  1. 1991 Honda Accord
  2. 1995 Honda Civic
  3. 1989 Toyota Camry
  4. 1994 Dodge Caravan
  5. 1994 Nissan Sentra
  6. 1997 Ford F150 Series
  7. 1990 Acura Integra
  8. 1986 Toyota Pickup
  9. 1993 Saturn SL
    1. 2004 Dodge Ram Pickup



Mark in CA March 20, 2007 1:22 PM

I don’t know about a heartbeat sensor, but around here most cars would benefit from a paying attention sensor.

vwm March 20, 2007 1:39 PM

I do not get it: Is that sensor
a) against murderers sneaking into the car although it is locked and the alarm is activated,
b) to ensure children and animals deliberately left inside are still alive,
c) against accidentally locking people in?

c) is quite stupid;
a) should be covered by car alarms anyhow;
and with b) they should introduce a second heartbeat sensor for the parents, so first aid can be send in after a false positive…

paul March 20, 2007 1:46 PM

To me, this translates as “You won’t have to walk down to your car to see if this is just one more &$@$ stupid false alarm waking up the rest of the neighborhood.”

Anonymous March 20, 2007 1:53 PM

If the sensor detects vibration, it’s going to fail badly if it’s parked in a parking lot, a parking garage, on the street, or anywhere except a quiet suburban garage. And probably not even in the garage (household vibrations transmitted through the garage floor).

Even if it has an exceptionally good digital filter tuned for the bandwidth of heartbeats, it would have to detect a range of heartbeats that includes small animals, which have higher beat rates.

This seems either bogus or a bad idea, no matter what technology it’s using. The simple reason is that failures (false positive or false negative) are too costly.

disgruntled ladye March 20, 2007 2:01 PM

I think I also read this being marketed to parents so they won’t leave a baby in the car… Sad, but that sort of thing has happened too many times.

This is just marketing to appeal to the demographic of people who want “Safe” cars. A look at any of Volvo’s marketing campaigns in the U.S. shows how much they advertise to people who want something safe. Volvo cars still have at least some of that reputation.

Joe Patterson March 20, 2007 2:20 PM

It would be just about as pointless, but I wonder if it would be more effective at saving lives in general if the same sensor were used to shut off the engine in the event that it failed to detect a heartbeat in the car?

In other words, there is a very low number of people who get attacked by a hidden assailant in the car. There is a very low number of people who die while driving and plow into oncoming traffic. Which number is actually lower?

On re-reading, I suspect that the purpose of this is to alert you if you inadvertently forget that your infant is in the back seat when you’re going in to the office. That can be deadly, especially in very warm or cold climates, and is certainly a horrific experience for a parent. I know when I lived in FL, there were a few stories about that happening each summer. Given that scenario, it doesn’t really seem that bad an idea…

Dom De Vitto March 20, 2007 2:57 PM


I’ve only just installed a sensor to detect murderers with magneto-inductive artificial hearts, and would you know it, technology moves on, and now I need to upgrade to detect Archimedes-screw based artificial hearts too.

Since the claw-hand from ‘Live and Let Die’ – it’s been a continuous war of attrition against cybernetically enhanced murderers, and Ford has finally started cashing in.

Bill P March 20, 2007 3:12 PM

Volvo is going to lose a lot of money because of this!
Lawers, politicians, many managers, used car dealers, and ex-wives will be undetectable!

V March 20, 2007 3:26 PM

Over a decade ago I saw a demo of this technology, it was being used in prisons to scan laundry trucks and the like to detect if someone had stowed away inside. It seemed to work very well. I would imagine that today it works even better.

Stupid use for it though.

MegaZone March 20, 2007 3:48 PM

Despite having TiVo, I’ve managed to see ads for this.

They play out as you would expect. It is late at night. An attractive young woman walks, alone, across the top level of a deserted parking structure toward her Volvo. As she approaches, she looks at her key fob to see a slowly blinking light. She stops, looks up at the car with mild terror dawning on her face. She turns, and walking faster now, heads back the way she came.

Saved from the unknown assailant hiding in her car. Thanks Volvo!

Gopi March 20, 2007 5:38 PM


That’s great! I think a counter-commercial would be good. The same thing, except that when she looks at her key fob, everything’s fine. She relaxes and lets down her guard. The axe murderer is, of course, hiding behind a concrete pillar instead.

Lukas March 20, 2007 6:21 PM

“If the alarm has been activated, the heartbeat sensor will also tell you if there is someone inside the car.”

Why is this feature conditional on whether the alarm has been activated? If an intruder has gained entry to the vehicle despite an alarm either the alarm was never activated or the intruder managed to deactivate it. Sure, the intruder might reactivate the alarm, but not all intruders will do so and certainly not the intruders who know about this feature.

I know it’s kind of a moot point considering the actual value of the feature, but still…

Mike March 20, 2007 6:55 PM

I’ve seen the ad for this feature, and it is sold as a way to detect attackers hidden in your car before you reach the car. Basically, the thesis is that you will not be able to escape from an assailant hiding in your car by the time you visually detect them. If it doesn’t add much cost to the car, and seems like a good way to add visibility to the parts of a car you can’t visually scan from a distance. Of course, it’s important that it be difficult to disable or fool the detector. The remote should flash a warning if its signal is being jammed or the detector isn’t working, for instance. Of course, this would require interaction with the user, since simply moving outside the range of the detector would cause this alert to be raised otherwise. I don’t think pressing a “check occupancy” button at night is such a big deal for a little extra safety, though.

Sean March 21, 2007 2:00 AM

Too many people are making dumb comments because this option is marketed via fearmongering. If you don’t want it, don’t buy it. But at least observe that it’s an interesting piece of technology.

Peter Amey March 21, 2007 4:31 AM

Not directly related but there was a similar bit of automotive comedy a few years back. A modern “key-less” car had the feature that as you walked away from it, with the electronic key replacement in your pocket, it locked all the doors for you. Skeptical owners, worried whether their car was really locked would go back to check, at which point the system would kindly unlock it for them as soon as they got close enough.

Karsten W. Rohrbach March 21, 2007 4:43 AM

From the Ford press release:
“Either trunk safety system can be programmed to provide an alarm through the electronic key fob or the vehicle’s alarm or to immediately release the trunk lid.”

So “keyless entry” to the trunk is achieved by injecting some CO2 from a soda dispenser and knocking a few times on the lid?

A'kos March 21, 2007 9:15 AM

Posted by: vwm at March 20, 2007 01:39 PM
“c) against accidentally locking people in?
c) is quite stupid;”

It’s much easier done than you’d expect.
On the way home we went in to the local supermarket. My in-law and daughter decided to stay in the car. I got out and automatically locked the car (I mostly sit alone in the car), but remembered that they stay, so I unlocked it again. Of course my volvo being helpfull decided after a few minutes that the door was not opened after being unlocked because I accidentally unlocked it. So it locked back the doors. After a few more minutes – the doors were not opened in the meantime – it deadlocked the doors and activated the alarm, which went off as soon one of the ladies in the car moved.

J.D. Abolins March 21, 2007 10:51 AM

The urban legends site has an entry for the “intruder hiding in the backseat” stories at

The greater risks of carjackings entail intruders breaking in from the outside of the vehicle while the driver is present. (Hint: Don’t concentrate upon possible heartbeats inside the vehicle as much as paying attention to what’s and who’s near the vehicle. Plain old situational awareness.)

WLW March 21, 2007 2:09 PM

This whole concept reminds me of the car alarm systems that will signal the key fob when the alarm goes off–supposedly so you can go investigate. As one comedian put it, “Now I can get my ass kicked on top of having my car stolen.”

Fred March 21, 2007 9:22 PM

I am interested in this technology for an actual useful application. I work in the building technologies, measuring occupany for safety (building is on fire and there are three people on the 3rd floor) and for energy (there is no one in this office so turn off the lights and reduce the ventilation, or there are 5 people in this conference room so set the air flow rate to X).

If anyone has solid data on this device, a spec sheet, or a manufacturer, please post it.



P.S. The commercial was effective because I park on the street and actually for a second I did think about checking the backseat if someone was in there. I guess Volvo figures that playing off of peoples fears is a good idea as long as you sell a product, reminds me of our president…

Wim L March 22, 2007 12:32 PM

Does it detect the hook hand on the door? Does it detect that the hitchhiker I just picked up is actually a ghost?

Snark aside, this does seem like a vaguely useful thing to do with the existing sensor data. Adding a touch sensor and CO2 sensor in the trunk is pretty silly, though — why not just install a crash-bar style handle there so that anyone inside can easily get out?

Joe April 5, 2007 7:47 AM

I still dont know that I agree with all these electronic features in todays modern cars, if for instance the window motor breaks your stuck trying to get a quarter into the toll basket, not to mention needing to take an equity line of credit to repair all these sensors.
If you want to know if someone is in a car install a small front and rear motion sensor and send that to the fob.
Also, to the post about the sensor not detecting lawyers, politicians and ex’s, as it is I get nervous when the airbag light comes on and get frightened that my ex mother in law is close by

Gregg Leonard May 10, 2007 6:57 PM

This is indeed security theatre. I was not aware of an epidemic of crime stemming from someone hiding in your vehicle. The heartbeat sensor would certainly save a life under the right cicrumstances, but I believe the actual incidents that occur under those conditions to be very rare. An expensive device to protect from a statistically unsubstantiated risk. This is just a creature comfort for the paranoid. While the scenario might be rare in reality, women in particular still seem to concern themselves with all the ridiculous situations where they could become prey to an evildoer. It would be refreshing to see a realistic look at the threats that we really face on a daily basis.

Dan Musher May 22, 2007 5:53 PM

Does anyone know what one is expected to pay for this most minor security ‘convenience’?

This4Now September 8, 2007 8:56 AM

You have missed the point for this device. Just today there was yet another careless mother who left her child in the backseat of the car. Windows up, 100 degree heat and the 8 hours later the child was dead. Had she had a device that could tell her somebody was in the car it would have saved her childs life. It is not a security feature, rather a safety feature for parents too careless to remember the kids are in the car….

Jennie February 5, 2008 7:14 PM

“You have missed the point for this device. Just today there was yet another careless mother who left her child in the backseat of the car. Windows up, 100 degree heat and the 8 hours later the child was dead. Had she had a device that could tell her somebody was in the car it would have saved her childs life.”

It’s tragic when that happens, but really how many people, forgetting they have left a child stranded in the car, will remember to look at their key fob to see if they left someone in the car?? They already would have taken the kid with them if that were the case. How sad that for some people it would be easier to remember “look at key” than “take my precious child with me so they don’t die”

SaMmY February 5, 2008 9:26 PM

Soooo it can’t detect the body parts in my dash???

Or better yet, If I rip out the victims heart, that means I’m good there too???

BodyBaggs February 8, 2008 1:24 AM

You People are all shot if you think the damn Key Fob picks up an actual heartbeat! It is called a “Heart beat” sensor because it will pick up any movement just like a car alarm/house alarm! Usually with “Life” & “movement” comes a “heart” and “beats” so to sum it up “heart” + “beat” + “sensor” = an option. An option is “take it or leave it” if you want it buy it if not dont!! Its not a Hospital on wheels!!

BodyBaggs February 8, 2008 1:30 AM

I heard the Volvo X80 is coming with a Digital Xray machine as well as a surgery table, EKG machines, a few IV hanger hooks and last but not least there is a special Tow Package for a pull behind Catscan!

norris February 13, 2008 11:37 AM

Talking about motion sensors, I had a Harley with STOCK pipes, quiet ones, and I went through the local hospital parking garage,and to my horror, every doctors Porche,Caddy,Volvo,Lexus,BMW,etc. all went off for 6 floors. What a trip. Imagine one with “Hell’s Angel’s” pipes.

A.Mercer February 15, 2008 9:50 AM

The commercial for this show it to be something to warn you if someone is sitting in your car. The odds of that are infinitesimal. I am not even sure there are statistics that show how many people are attacked by people hiding in their cars. It is sure-fire urban legend fodder though. Also, this is worthless if you forget to check the monitor before you get in the car. I know that when I unlock my car using the remote it turns the interior lights on and I can just look in the windows to see the attacker waiting for me. If I am too lazy to do that then I am sure not going to check my remote sensor every time.

Another point of worthlessness is how did the attacker get in the car in the first place? Smash the windows? Break a lock? Have a copy of the key? Also, if the attacker is in the car the attacker will have access to the fuse box. Can the sensor be turned off by taking out a certain fuse? Is there a way to interfere with the sensor? I will bet that if there is then it will not take long before you can just google “Volvo heartbeat sensor hack??? and get a few thousand sites detailing how to do it. One the person is in the car the sensor can be compromised.

As for children left in cars, once again this will be pretty much worthless because people who leave their children in cars generally are in a hurry. They are not going to check that sensor. They are running to get to work or something. What would be a better idea for preventing this using a heart rate monitor is a very noisy alarm that will activate if it detects a heartbeat in the car and the temperature goes above a certain mark. Maybe even kick in the AC or roll the windows down or something to help reduce the temperature. You have to measure the heartbeat for a minute or so because you do not want it going off the second you climb into your car/oven after it has been sitting in the sun all afternoon. This would be good for children and pets in cars.

This Volvo security feature is a ripoff. It is being sold to people by making those people believe that there is a need for it when there is none. This is basic sales and advertising but some things go too far. You know that there are salesmen out there who are going to push this sucker as much as they can especially if it has a high markup. I used to work at a car dealership in the make ready department and had to deal with salesmen all the time. They have a phrase for when they take in a sucker. It is called “knocking their head off???. I am sure that lots of heads will roll in the show room because of this little waste of money. I am pretty sure that the salesmen will recognize that this feature is worthless but will bring them a profit.

Anonymous February 19, 2008 7:23 PM

For those claiming the heartbeat sensor is for not fogetting your child in the car…

1.) You have to LOOK at your keyring to see the sensor and if you do that when leaving your car you can just as easily LOOK and see if your kid is still in the car…but if you are looking in the first place then you are THINKING about it and would remember your kid…and thus there would be no need for the sensor!

2.) If you look and see it upon returning to your car you would not really gain anything beacause by then the damage has been done to the child by then

3.) The Volvo commerical CLEARLY shows this is geared towards intruders in your car (woman comes to car at night, sees heartbeat sensor go off and walks away from her car)

So stop all the nonsense about this being to save a child!

STUPID February 20, 2008 8:54 PM


4whatitsworth February 20, 2008 9:47 PM

The issue of breaking into a car without setting off the alarm is worth considering. I have had my Suburban broken into and have friends with Fords who have had essentially “undetected” breakins. This seems to be accomplished somehow by ramming a screw driver into the lock at the door handle. This leaves only a small indentation on the keyhole and apparently does not set off the alarm. Most of these thieves grab what they can see and don’t want to camp out in your vehicle. However, it wouldn’t be a stretch for a stalker or someone with a grudge to be camped out in your back seat.

That being said, these are Chevys and Fords. I don’t know if a Volvo lock can be broken in the same manner.

As for the baby-in-the-car issue, the commercial gives no indication of whether this technology would work in such a case. I doubt Volvo would take the liability for a case in which it did not work. In my part of the world, this is, unfortunately, a common problem. However, it’s usually not a problem in Volvo owners. It’s usually a problem with daycare bus/van drivers who tend to work for businesses that serve lower income individuals and often have past histories of drug/alcohol abuse. The tragedy is the same no matter the income level, but the demographics just don’t seem to be owners of new Volvos.

Toni February 24, 2008 9:08 PM

I initially thought this was an excellent idea when I saw the commercial. However, if it ONLY measures heartbeat from INSIDE the car then it does not do much good. It also brings up a great point to the fact that someone would actually have to break into your car for you to find out if they are in there AND this says that the alarm must be activated in order to measure the heartbeat inside the car. So if you activated the alarm, wouldnt the alarm go off when someone broke in? And if it didnt that poses an even greater question, Why do there alarms not go off if someone breaks in. That would worry me about buying this car if they had to put a heartbeat sensor inside the car just incase the alarm didnt work. Now if there was a heartbeat sensor that measured maybe 5 feet AROUND the vehicle, THEN I would be interested in spending the extra money for that on this car. But until then, this is a waste of money.

Liudwih February 25, 2008 5:51 AM

It is my understanding that it senses heart beats both in and around the car. If the “around the vehicle” part is true I think it is great! I do worry walking to my car at night. A woman was just abducted raped and murdered at a local mall. The guy was hiding behind car. So again if it monitors around the vehical great. For just inside the vehicle that stinks.

Chuck May 16, 2008 9:32 PM

Hay the FORD web site says you can set the system up to sound the alarm if there is a heart beat after beeing locked.
So, you get out of the car and lock it out of habit. But your new kid is not a habit yet. Now you get 30 ft away and the alarm sound. This whould save a child. Read people Read.

Chuck May 16, 2008 9:36 PM

And a car jacker dosent have to be in the car just on the otherside, touching it even slitly. So no defeating the alarm, just crouched on the passangers side and waiting for the doors to unlock.

Anonymous January 23, 2009 3:21 PM

yea, they should make a 2nd commercial… lady walks to her car, notices the light on key fob, letting her know someone is in the car..she walks back where she came from..and of course, the intruder’s accomplice, another murderer, is waiting behind the bushes. great technology volvo!

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