It may seem counter-intuitive to think of the automobile as a health care delivery center, but Ford is adding technology to its cars to fulfill that very idea. Gary Strumolo, global manager of health and wellness research, interiors and infotainment at Ford, described this effort at HIMSS13 in New Orleans, noting both the potential and limitations of in-car interactive technology designed at improving passenger safety and wellness.

“It is not our intention to turn a car into a medical device,” he cautioned. At the same time, Ford is hoping that consumers will take advantage of a growing number of in-car technology capabilities with health and wellness applications. Ford cars are designed with mobile device connectivity capability, enabling, for example, incoming calls to be routed through a voice activated system to let a driver talk hands-free, Strumolo said. Likewise, the car can potentially capitalize on the growing number of smartphone applications targeting consumer health.

In one example, Ford has developed an in-car heart rate monitoring seat. The set-up revolves around six sensors embedded in the seat. The sensors can capture heart rate data, combine it with other information such as how fast the car is going, and then calculate a “driver workload estimate.” The monitoring system can turn off various dashboard indicators not needed in a potentially distracting situation and only show the speedometer. It can also route any incoming cell phone calls to voice mail during a high-stress period.

Ford is working with health care companies in the effort. It has a partnership with Medtronic, which will enable a wearable blood glucose monitoring device to feed continuous data to a smartphone, and analyze it in an app which tracks trending, returning information back through the car’s interactive voice system. The driver pushes a button to activate the app, which will announce the current blood sugar level. The driver can also query the system for an update on a passenger wearing the device, such as a diabetic child riding with a parent.

Strumolo said people spend so much time in their cars commuting that it only make sense to try to add health-related apps to the driving experience. But he noted the technology largely depends on the willingness of a driver to use it. Ford is looking at ways to tackle the issue of drunk, and even distracted, driving, he said. But it’s a difficult problem to solve because drunk drivers will take measures to avoid detection. Technology could conceivably be used to bring a car to a halt automatically, but knowing when and where to do that safely is not easily determined, he said.

 

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