Ford’s wearables lab explores health tech applications for cars, tempered by integration challenges
Mar 21, 2016
I think Ford Motor Company’s exploration of how to integrate wearables into its cars is pretty interesting. The launch of its lab this year came five years after the company identified mobile health as an area of interest. The Automotive Wearables Experience laboratory at the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan offers a window into how Ford and other automobile manufacturers are thinking about connected cars, specifically in the area of health, wellness and safety. Its work could lead to some interesting findings that impact healthcare, particularly as health systems figure out how to make remote monitoring work.
In a phone interview with Gary Strumolo, the manager for Vehicle Design and Infotronics, Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford Motor Co., he talked about not only its interest in integrating mobile health technologies through smartwatches and tracking devices, but also about the inherent challenges that can entail.
A PwC report on connected cars focused on the European market foresees annual sales of connected car technologies tripling to €122.6 billion ($138 billion) by 2021. Although that covers a wide range of areas from Internet connection to entertainment, health and safety are tied together in many respects for auto makers, particularly with older drivers in mind.
It is particularly interested in ways to use biometric data to get a read on a driver’s health — her alertness and stress levels. If its vehicles could get accurate, continuous biometric data, it could make driver-assist systems more sensitive if the driver shows signs of compromised health or awareness. It could slow the car to reduce the distance from vehicles ahead of it. On the flip side, it could also be used to trigger an alert to drivers of an accident ahead so that they stay vigilant.
Strumolo said one of the factors that has spurred Ford to include mobile health in its study of wearables tech is the lack of significant growth in the provider space.
“If you look at chronic illness, the number of healthcare providers will remain flat. There’s an ever-increasing gap between people who need help and people who can provide help and so we see mobile health helping that. We have had conversations with insurance companies and medical organizations looking at how that might work. But discussions are preliminary.”
Developing ways to extend chronic condition monitoring in cars is one of the three parts of an innovation challenge Ford is currently running. It’s also evaluating submissions on tracking vital signs to improve the driving experience and using connected health to save lives on the road.
But why mobile health and wearables specifically? As Strumolo points out, it’s a practical way to get around some of the inherent complexities of adding new technology to cars. He said there are three ways to get technology into cars, generally: built-in, brought in, or beamed in (through the cloud).
Built-in technology, as you can guess, is a long process. It can take five years for a new technology to be included in its vehicle program and by that time, it’s likely to be obsolete. As Strumolo recalls, it once experimented with integrating a heart rate monitor into the driver’s seat.
As researchers discovered, it required a special seat calibration and the reading differed, depending on what the driver was wearing. If the driver moved around at all in the seat, that would mean contact with sensors would vary and could screw up the reading. They would have to sit back in the seat and be still, which is impractical. But with wearables, you don’t have that problem.
“Brought-in technology like a wearable is more attractive because it is already paid for by owner and it can go across car lines,” Strumolo said. “We saw an opportunity to look at how vehicle connectivity could be repurposed to get information on the health and well-being of drivers…We thought health and wellness could bring serious benefits by getting information off devices that people bring in to ensure people operate” their vehicle safely.
Diabetes was one area that was flagged as a priority when Ford announced its interest in mobile health. The appeal of a continuous glucose monitor that could alert drivers to an imminent hypoglycemic event they may be unaware of — by broadcasting it through the car speakers, for example — would be useful for drivers with the condition and could help avoid an accident.
Drivers falling asleep at the wheel is another area it believes wearables might be part of a solution. And yet the more it has investigated this area, the more questions it has raised about sussing out the right approach. If a person is getting drowsy, they risk falling asleep and the car might need to re-engage the driver. But how far ahead of time can wearables be used to predict this?
“It is not that easy to make that detection,” Strumolo said. “Even if you had a camera looking at the driver… what metric do you use to make that determination?” It raises the question, what are the factors that determine the onset of sleep? Can that be determined by the respiration rate, skin temperature, heart rate?
Strumolo and his colleagues are also looking into a way to measure stress levels of drivers to potentially assist them in making decisions at the right times.
These are among several studies and trials it has underway and expects to produce results on in the next few years.
But one glaring shortcoming Strumolo has observed in its wearables research that has implications far beyond the car industry is the battery source that wearables rely on. Batteries behind many of the wearables on the market are not designed to last more than one day. Retrieving data from them frequently is a big drain on the device’s power.
The next big wearables breakthrough should be energy management. That would have benefits across healthcare, particularly if remote monitoring is to be practical.