Imagine this scenario: You're driving in heavy traffic, and someone tries to call you. Sensing that your heart rate is elevated -- a red flag for stress - your vehicle pushes the call straight to voicemail.
It's a scenario that might not be all that far-fetched. Researchers at Ford Motor Co.'s R&D lab in Aachen, Germany, along with researchers at RWTH Aachen University, are working on a vehicle seat that would monitor the driver's heart rate.
In conjunction with sensors in other parts of the vehicle, the heart-rate-monitoring seat could take into consideration a number of factors -- such as the traffic conditions, what the driver is doing at the time (accelerating or slowing down, for example), and the driver's heart rate -- to assess the driver's workload, explained Gary Strumolo, manager of vehicle design and infotronics for Ford Research and Innovation.
"If the driver workload is high, we can do certain things that are different," such as temporarily routing phone calls to voicemail, Strumolo told members of the media at the "Forward With Ford" conference Tuesday in Dearborn, Mich.
"We want to expand the notion of automotive safety," Strumolo explained. "If I ask you what do I mean by automotive safety, most people would probably say crashworthiness -- how does a car behave when you get into a crash, is the structure strong, do the airbags deploy properly, how many airbags do I have and so on. The reality is many people go through their entire driving life without ever getting into a crash.
"But if you have chronic illness, you suffer from that everyday of your life. So if we really want to improve the wellbeing of the driver, we have to go beyond just preparing them for an eventual possible crash to being concerned with what they deal with everyday."
While the technology may be complex, Ford's strategy for moving in this direction is simple: Bring existing health and wellness tools into the car.
For example, Strumolo noted that there are thousands of health and wellness apps available for smartphones such as the iPhone or Android.
"Not all of them are relevant to the inside of a car," Strumolo said. "But many of them are, and we're looking at which ones would be reasonable to bring into a car."
From Infotainment to Health and Wellness
At the center of Ford's strategy is its Sync communications and connectivity system, which allows consumers to bring digital media players and Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones into their vehicles and operate the devices via voice commands or with the steering wheel's redundant audio controls.
Strumolo sees Sync shifting from an infotainment system to a health and wellness system.
How? Strumolo pointed to a continuous-glucose-monitoring device manufactured by Medtronic Inc. for people with diabetes. Ford is exploring the possibility of the device interfacing with the Sync system to make it easy for drivers to find out their current blood-sugar levels as well as the direction their blood-sugar levels are heading.
"Imagine if you're a diabetic," Strumolo said. "You have this device on, but it's winter so you have a coat on. You don't know what your blood-sugar level is, and you can't really reach in there to see it -- because we want you to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.
"With Sync and this kind of device, you press a button and you say 'blood-sugar level,' and it queries the device and tells you what it is and which way [your blood-sugar level] is going."
Strumolo added that the device also could be used to ensure that a driver's diabetic child or grandchild in the car is sleeping -- and not going into diabetic shock -- giving the driver peace of mind.
Take 'the Healthiest Route'
Another way Ford plans to bring health and wellness tools into the vehicle is by accessing resources from the cloud, Strumolo said.
For example, SDI Health LLC has created a website called pollen.com that provides weather forecasts and other information tailored for allergy sufferers. Ford is working with SDI Health to make that information available in vehicles via Sync.
Another possibility would be accessing air-quality information from the cloud to determine which areas and routes to avoid, if the driver is sensitive to pollution.
"Today, with a navigation system, you can ask it to give you the most fuel-efficient route or the quickest route," Strumolo said. "But imagine if you could ask it for the healthiest route.
"You're traveling in Los Angeles, and you know in L.A. there's a smog problem. ... You tell the car, 'Give me the healthiest route,' and it could possibly route you around where the smog areas are. It may take you a little longer, but your lungs will appreciate it."
Strumolo noted that we're about a year or two from seeing the allergy app in vehicles.
Catering to an Aging Population
Ford's push toward health and wellness fits into a larger theme of the world's aging population.
At the Forward With Ford Conference, which explored societal trends and how they are shaping consumer behavior, the company noted that by 2030, the number of people over 50 will surpass those under 20.
Strumolo talked about several product and process technologies that are either here or on the horizon to meet the needs of aging drivers. For example, multi-contour seats feature bladders inside them that inflate and deflate to improve circulation during long drives, while "easy-fuel" capless fillers make it easier for motorists with arthritic fingers to refuel their vehicles.
The automaker also announced that starting next year it plans to make fonts on many interior controls bolder and thicker to make it easier for people of all ages -- particularly aging Baby Boomers -- to read them.