By Gary Strumolo
Customer research and societal trends suggest that there’s a strong business case for automakers to explore opportunities in health and wellness. Here’s what we at Ford have learned:
While chronic illnesses are on the rise, the number of healthcare providers has remained relatively flat, which effectively limits patient access. For this reason and others, people of all ages and from all income groups are taking a more hands-on approach to their own health and wellness.
More people now visit online health sites than go to the doctor’s office. Nearly 72 percent of Internet users have sought medical advice on the Web, with WebMD accruing 138 million unique users per month.
Paralleling the increasing interest in health websites is an explosion of interest in mobile health solutions. By 2015, some 500 million people are expected to be using mobile healthcare apps.
Taken together, these trends create a natural role for the automobile in the emerging digital health and wellness field. As we see it, “The Car That Cares” provides something like the ideal user environment based on customer needs.
- People are increasingly seeking to monitor and measure their health in ongoing ways
- It’s convenient and private.
- It facilitates personalized access to information, products and services the user needs.
- And it’s the only logical place for users to manage their health while they’re in motion or, more often, stuck in traffic.
The relevance of the last point can’t be overstated. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, we spend 500 million commuter hours per week behind the wheel, and the number is rising. We might not find a better, more convenient place from which to manage our health while we’re driving.
In creating trial versions of such an environment, Ford has pursued research projects that leverage the capabilities of our exclusive SYNC platform. Ford SYNC, developed with Microsoft, is an advanced software platform that provides consumers the convenience and flexibility to bring wireless devices into their vehicles and operate them via voice commands or through the steering wheel’s radio controls. They fall into one of three categories:
- Tools based primarily on technologies that we build into the vehicle.
- Products and services that we bring in using Bluetooth.
- Others that we will beam in from the cloud.
The In-Car Heart Monitor co-developed by our European research and innovation arm and a leading German research university consists of six sensors embedded in the driver’s seat, which provide real-time health information.
One application we’re pursuing is a driver workload estimate, based on data collected from the sensors in combination with information about the driving environment and the driver’s behavior. The car would use this estimate to intelligently manage driver stressors.
For example, if the workload estimate were high enough, the car could route incoming phone calls straight to voice mail, while at lower levels, the driver would be allowed to take the call. The technology can be used to create a safe, convenient, non-distracting environment that lets the driver concentrate on the road.
According to a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey, the diabetes rate increased by more than 10 percent in 2009, ultimately afflicting 26 million Americans. If this trend continues, more than 37 million will be living with the disease by the end of 2015.
Naturally, we are pleased to partner with MedTronic, whose continuous glucose monitor holds the promise of improving the lives of diabetics. This device shows not only current blood sugar levels but also the direction they’re trending. Both pieces of information are critical if you’re behind the wheel—you need to know if you’re headed toward a problem to be able to take corrective action in advance.
If a driver is going hypoglycemic he could become confused or lightheaded and his vision may blur. That’s a safety issue for driver, passenger, and anyone else on the road.
The MedTronic device communicates through Bluetooth and can be paired with SYNC, giving drivers the ability to check their status with a press of a button and a simple series of voice commands. They never have to take their eyes off the road, or their hands off the wheel.
One promising service is “Allergy Alert,” which we’ve developed with IMS Health. IMS’s proprietary mobile phone app provides the pollen level at your location, along with asthma, flu/cold/cough and UV indices. Through this type of intelligence, the car is able to respond even more intelligently to environmental conditions. For example, it automatically turns on the recirculation mode to keep pollen-laden air from reaching the passenger compartment, or suggests healthier driving routes. The compatibility with Ford SYNC marks the first in a series of IMS mobile applications that leverage advanced technologies to deliver real-time health and wellness information to consumers on-the-go.
Whether built in, brought in, or beamed in, these technologies have the potential to transform the way we interact with our cars and create personalized owner experiences that go well beyond infotainment–what most people think of when they think about in-car services.
In the months and years to come, we intend to pursue more partnerships to develop smart mobile health solutions. As an extension of our customers’ lives, the “car that cares” is taking shape as an exciting new platform to be relied upon for connectivity, innovation, and transformation as much as we now rely on smartphones or tablets. What’s more, we believe such technology will broaden the way we understand automotive safety and provide an integrated approach to ensuring the well-being of our customers.
Gary Strumolo is Global Manager of Interiors, Infotainment, Health & Wellness Research at Ford Motor Company.