Future Tech

By Chandra Orr

August 23, 2011 7 min read

Think your car is high-tech now? Wait a few years.

Soon, your car will be able to monitor your heart rate for stress levels and provide earlier safety warnings, monitor your blood sugar (if you're diabetic) and warn of oncoming health issues, chart the healthiest route via GPS based on real-time pollen and pollution ratings, and communicate with every other car on the road to prevent accidents and traffic backups.

It may sound like science fiction, but these emerging technologies are already in development at Ford Motor Co. and poised to hit showroom floors in just a few years.

At a three-day media conference in June 2011, Ford unveiled some surprising new advances in vehicle technology -- advances that will transform your car into a digital appliance hub much like your home computer or smartphone.

"We're looking at cars as technology platforms. When the car becomes a technology platform, you can then build a whole spectrum of applications on top of that platform," says Gary Strumolo, manager for Vehicle Design and Infotronics at Ford's research and advanced engineering lab in Dearborn, Mich.

*Health and Wellness

At the conference, Ford researchers demonstrated several in-car health and wellness applications aimed at managing chronic illnesses like diabetes, asthma and allergies, all from behind the wheel. Using the Ford SYNC system -- which can connect Bluetooth devices, access cloud-based Internet services and control smartphone apps -- the new technologies could provide real-time health monitoring and add a new dimension to driver safety.

"Currently if you talk about SYNC, you think primarily infotainment -- it connects your phone, it connects your MP3 player and so on," Strumolo explains. "But what we want to do is change that paradigm, to say not only is it concerned with infotainment, but it's also concerned with the health and well-being of the driver and passengers in the car."

Your GPS navigation system can already plot the quickest route, the shortest route and the most scenic -- but what if it could also determine the healthiest?

The project is currently in development, but the premise is simple: Your vehicle's computer would use Bluetooth connectivity to download real-time pollen, allergen and pollution data from Pollen.com, then coordinate with the onboard GPS system to configure the healthiest route based on current smog and pollutant data, which could prove useful for asthmatics or those living in larger cities, such as Los Angeles.

Ford is applying that same Bluetooth connectivity to help diabetics behind the wheel. In a partnership with WellDocs.com, researchers hope to provide real-time health monitoring for diabetics who use Bluetooth-enabled Medtronic blood glucose meters.

Essentially, the vehicle will read information from the medical devices, interface with WellDocs.com and signal the driver in the event of a high or low blood-sugar reading. Using personalized medical profiles from WellDocs.com, the car could then advise the driver to recheck their blood sugar, suggest a quick snack, recommend additional insulin, contact the driver's doctor or send a text message to family or friends listed as emergency contacts.

"If you're a diabetic, certainly you want to have a continuous knowledge of your condition, but it's particularly critical if you're driving, because that can affect your ability to drive, which not only endangers you, but others on the road," Strumolo says.

Heart-rate-monitoring seats, also in development, could one day be used by medical experts to monitor patients remotely and warn drivers of irregularities that might indicate a heart attack or cardiovascular problem.

Outfitted with six hidden electrodes, the seats read electrical impulses through clothing, taking the readings from the electrodes with the strongest signals. The seats could also be linked to the vehicle's anti-collision technology to provide earlier warning signals when the driver experiences stress, as indicated by an elevated heart rate, which would give drivers more time to respond to potential hazards during nerve-racking traffic.

*Car-to-Car Communication

Imagine smart cars capable of communicating with every other car on the road to avoid accidents and traffic backups. Ford is leading the development of this intelligent-vehicle technology, which will allow cars to monitor oncoming obstacles, look several cars ahead, and even see around corners to warn drivers of collision hazards and congestion.

Known as vehicle-to-vehicle communications, the system relies on advanced Wi-Fi signals to provide 360 degrees of detection by "speaking" to other vehicles in the vicinity. Essentially, every vehicle will know what every other vehicle in the area is doing and notify drivers when safety hazards arise.

"The notion of talking cars may immediately bring to mind thoughts of children's movies, but the reality is that vehicles capable of speaking the same language could result in significant safety and convenience benefits for drivers," says Christian Ress, connectivity technical expert for Global Driver Assistance and Active Safety at Ford.

Intelligent vehicles will be able to warn drivers of quick-breaking traffic several car lengths ahead, shifting traffic patterns on busy freeways or potential collisions while changing lanes and crossing intersections.

"Intelligent vehicles, able to send and receive messages in fractions of a second, could help warn drivers of dangers neither they nor their hazard monitoring safety systems could spot, be it because of the distance to the hazard or obstacles that block the view ahead, such as heavy traffic or bends in the road," Ress explains.

Automakers are partnering with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and local road commissions to develop a common language so all cars can communicate with one another. Ford, however, is the first automaker to develop prototype vehicles for demonstrations across the U.S.

Experts predict intelligent vehicles will hit showrooms in five to 10 years.

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