Ford to use wearables to improve health and safety in cars

Ford to use wearables to improve health and safety in cars

Summary: As expectations ramp up for Google and Apple in the wearables space, Ford wants to use wearables to connect your health to the car and connect the car to your wrist.

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TOPICS: Innovation, Hardware
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Image: Ford

I interviewed three leaders at the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan on Tuesday and all three of them were sporting a wearable device on both wrists. All three also talked about the expectations of coming wearable innovations from Google and Apple.

It was obviously no coincidence. Ford is serious about what wearables can do for cars.

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"Things like wearables we see as a tremendous opportunity," said Gary Strumolo, Ford's Manager of Vehicle Design and Infotronics. "It eliminates one of the problems that we always felt in terms of how do we get biometric information from the driver... We want it to be continuous and transparent to the driver. Wearables [can] solve that problem."

Stromolo said Ford has considered a number of options for getting this biometric data from the driver in the past, including possible wristbands or headbands, but the company doubted that many drivers would wear them. However, the equation changes if people start voluntarily wearing health monitoring devices that Ford can connect to and integrate into the car's information systems.

"We see [wearable tech] as a great opportunity because people will wear it. We don't have to ask them to wear it. We don't have to build it into the car. As long as it has Bluetooth connectivity we can connect to it like we can connect to a phone, we can leverage our SYNC platform," said Strumolo.

"And then we can be intelligent about what we do inside the car as a result of that information. So if the driver is very stressed we might make recommendations going from the most research-y kind of thing of changing the music selection to calm the driver down to preventing phone calls from coming in and sending them direct to voicemail so they don't have to exacerbate the situation. We can do things if we know the condition of the driver."

Jim Buczkowski, Ford Technical Fellow and Director of Electrical and Electronics Systems, also emphasized that health monitoring can allow vehicles to better understand their drivers and adjust the way the vehicle reacts and relays information. Using heart rate monitors, the vehicle can tell if you're stressed. Using cameras or other sensors, it might be able to tell if you're tired.

"If you're very tired, if you appear very distracted, maybe we hold off on that phone call and [automatically] send a [text] message: 'call you back later'."

"If we can tell a little bit more about your state at any particular time, we can tune the vehicle -- [and] the information coming to you -- to your current conditions," said Buczkowski. "If you're very tired, if you appear very distracted, maybe we hold off on that phone call and [automatically] send a [text] message: 'call you back later'."

Stromolo speculated that this could help people with health challenges or chronic illnesses to be safer drivers. "Most people go through most of their driving lives without ever being in a serious auto accident," he said, "but they may have a chronic illness that they have [to deal with] every day. And so the question is can we deal with the needs people have on a daily basis and not on this rare occasion when [an accident] happens."

When we spoke with Stromolo in his office at Ford, he was wearing a Pebble smartwatch on one hand and a Basis smartwatch/fitness tracker on the other. When we went down to Buczkowski's office we found him wearing a Pebble on one hand and a Shine fitness tracker on the other. We also spoke with Venkatesh Prasad, Ford's Senior Technical Leader of Vehicle Design and Infotronics (also known as "The What's Next Guy" inside Ford) and he was also wearing a Pebble and a Basis.

However, when asked about what wearable ecosystems Ford is likely to support, they each articulated interest in three platforms: Pebble, Android, and iOS.

Buczkowski said they are asking themselves, "What do people really value about a Pebble watch? What can we anticipate they are going to really value in a Google device? ... And maybe Apple will introduce a device in the fall."

"Probably the No. 1 thing ... is the notifications [feature]," Buczkowski added. "I don't have to fish my phone out of my pocket if it buzzes. I can take a quick glance down to see if it's an important message or it's just the closing price of Ford stock or maybe it's a call from my wife... If [customers are] going to integrate this into their lifestyle because it has some value and if the value it has to their lifestyle is notifications, then how does that make sense in the vehicle?"

He said that's a question Ford is still grappling with, but the team is considering options like taking advantage of vibrating alerts to help drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

Ford vehicles don't currently offer any integration with any wearable platforms, but clearly it's coming. Buczkowski said the company will ultimately work to support all of the different wearables devices that are expected to hit the market in the coming years.

"The theme Ford started with SYNC and that will continue is that we want to be agnostic," he said. "We want you to make the choices. You make the choices and we'll try to work with the choices you make... Whatever's most appropriate or important to you, we'd like to bring it into the vehicle. And we'll do that to the extent we can. Some of that's going to involve standards and standardization... We may pick some partners to do some experimentation or kick things off."

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7 comments
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  • what a piece of nonesece

    biometric sensors have been around for a very very long while. walk into spots authority store - there are wrist bands of all kinds that track everything trackable. look at the tradmills - they have been equipped with biometric sensors for years.

    so why now, when google said Jump everyone are rushing to jump? how does Ford's desire to measure things about drivers have anything to do with google? Why?
    ForeverSPb
  • So that Google and Ford can gather and sell all that information

    I don't think so...
    jparr
  • I am hoping it will not be OS centric.

    My Cruze has Chevy MyLink. It works transparently with any phone. I have synched it to my daughter's iPhone, my spouse and I have Windows Phones and the Samsung Phone when I first got it worked as well. I have no wearable devices but would hope that when they are added the car will still accept all of them. For this to happen the device manufacturers will need to agree on and comply with a standard. If you give it a little thought that really is the ONLY way such personally invasive systems that need to interact with every car you operate can function. Imagine the day when OnStar detects a heart attack, pulls you over to the curb and uses sequential airbag inflation to keep you breathing until first responders get there!
    The Heretic
    • Great idea, except for the airbag.

      Unfortunately, current airbags are like firecrackers; they only go off ONCE. In fact, they really ARE firecrackers, because they use explosives to generate the large volume of gas needed to inflate, quickly enough to cushion a crash.

      They would have to have supplementary reinflatable airbags to do the CPR functions. But the idea is fantastic! It would emulate the full First Law of Robotics, in both phases: avoiding HARMING a human being, and actively PREVENTING harm to a human being.

      And when automatic driving and navigation are integrated, it could check to see if a hospital is close enough, tell 911 to meet you there, and drive to it SAFELY. Or, possibly in addition, establish a remote navigation link with the EMT vehicle that is dispatched, so they could meet the car closer than the nearest hospital (in a parking lot, perhaps) if they judge that you can't wait long enough without EMS assistance (using the remotely linked vital signs).

      If the technology is sophisticated and reliable enough, "Miss Daisy" could continue driving herself, and the "chauffer" would take over if she loses the ability to control the car.
      jallan32
  • Another reason to get self-driving cars

    The ultimate disgust of having your precious bodily fluids and pressures monitored by multi-national corporations with your "health and personal safety" uppermost. What ID protection? What privacy from commercial exploitation?

    Good grief! Fire those nuts in the IT Department...
    lomamonster1
  • Mr. Anonymous Techie

    Why not design your apparatus to fit on the driver's seatbelt, instead of requiring the person driving to wear the device? If Ford Motor loves this suggestion, ping my address and send me a new supercar (tax free, of course)
    Vibrantrich
  • Ford just doesn't get it!

    For vehicular electronics, LESS is better---and SAFER!!! They seem to be on the track of cramming more and more gimmicky (face recognition, gestures, wearables) functions into their vehicles while seeming to ignore making things easier (and less distracting) for the driver. They badly need to give some serious thought to simplifying their UI instead. Concentrate on quality, not quantity, Ford!!!
    Userama