Suddenly, everyone is monitoring their heart rate and counting their steps – or so it seems. Can carmakers get in on this trend with telematics and help drivers stay safe, alert and healthy while driving? Susan Kuchinskas reports.
The idea was stellar – at least on paper. A diabetic driver might miss early signs that his blood glucose levels were spiking, a condition that could lead to drowsiness or blurred vision. But what if his Medtronic continuous glucose monitor paired with Ford's Sync communications and entertainment system and delivered the monitor’s warnings through Sync’s audio alerts and visual displays?
Ford demoed the Medtronic integration in 2011 and also floated plans to integrate Pollen.com’s Allergy Alert app. In August 2012, Allergy Alert became the first mobile health app to integrate with Ford’s Sync, allowing drivers to voice-access location-based, day-by-day index levels for pollen, asthma, cold and cough, and ultraviolet sensitivity.
But the Medtronic integration ran into potential regulatory obstacles, according to Gary Strumolo, manager, vehicle design and infotronics, and global manager, interiors and health & wellness research, Ford.
"Medtronic has struggled because of the fear of modifying the device to the point that they would need to get it re-approved by the [U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)]," Strumolo says. "A Bluetooth connection is needed to communicate information with Sync. … Adding the Bluetooth connection might trigger the FDA review."
Strumolo says that Ford is looking at other manufacturers of consumer glucose meters, but expects they will encounter the same FDA-approval issues.
Regulatory issues are just one obstacle to providing mobile health solutions for the car. Another is the need to feed physiological information to the car's systems. In the past, Ford has demonstrated a car seat fitted with sensors that could measure heart rate – but this is an expensive solution.
According to Strumolo, wearables might potentially provide a better approach to merging personal health and fitness with the car. "A lot of measurements we want to make require some sort of contact with the driver," Strumolo says. "We felt that wearing devices in the car for that purpose is not something people would want to do. But times have changed."
And with so many companies pushing wearable devices, most of which are Bluetooth-enabled, "this overcomes the hurdle we saw," he says.
Join the club
Ford is far from alone in seeking to enhance the link between the car and driver. At the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota showed off its FV2 concept that reads and responds to the driver's emotions via face recognition and voice analysis. It also can reflect the driver's heart rate in colors and patterns on the exterior.
"We need to have a more meaningful relationship with the vehicle,” says Jason Schulz, Toyota’s manager for 21st century business partnerships. “Right now, it's driver and car. … Showing the heartbeat is an illustration of trying to tie those two things together. If the vehicle is able to understand a bit more about you, it may make for more of a fun drive in some cases."
Like Strumolo, Schulz thinks there's potential, too, in connecting cars with wearable devices. "The auto manufacturer's job is to look for ways to safely and carefully integrate those features, whatever they may be, into a meaningful relationship with the vehicle," he says.
Meanwhile, last September, Nissan demoed its Nismo smartwatch concept at the Frankfurt Motor Show. On top of a range of car performance data, the wearable would also track the driver's heart rate. In addition, Nissan is evaluating the potential of monitoring electrocardiogram readings to identify driver fatigue; electroencephalogram (EEG) readings to track the driver's concentration and level of emotion; and skin temperature in order to make sure the driver's core body temperature and level of hydration are healthy.
Separating trends from the trendy
While wearables are très chic in tech circles, it's not yet clear whether they will go mainstream. Juniper Research recently reported that 13 million wearable devices shipped globally in 2013; the firm expects that number to grow to 130 million in 2018. Compare that to the billions of people driving cars, and it's barely a niche.
Roger Lanctot, associate director, automotive multimedia & communications service, Strategy Analytics, says most people don't want to fiddle with yet another device. "Power management issues are obvious,” he says. “But even if they had something clever to solve that, you still take it off, put it near something or synch it or something."
Lanctot thinks carmakers should work with what they already have, instead of integrating new devices with questionable staying power. He points out that drivers sit in the seat, hold onto the steering wheel and keep the seat belt clasped to their chests. Those literal touchpoints can provide a lot of what you need to monitor the driver's physiology.
Moreover, as automakers move toward advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and semi-autonomous driving, the cameras and sensors these systems rely on will be available for health monitoring, as well. "So, we'll focus on the touchpoints that are already in the car," Lanctot says. "You're getting into this huge mobile device – you don't have to wear one."
Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.
For all the latest telematics trends, check out Content and Apps for Automotive Europe 2014  on April 8-9 in Munich, Germany, Insurance Telematics Europe 2014  on May 6-7 in London, Telematics India and South Asia 2014  on May 28-29 in Bangalore, India, Insurance Telematics Canada 2014  on May 28-29 in Toronto, Telematics Detroit 2014  on June 4-5 in Novi, Michigan, Advanced Automotive Safety USA 2014  on July 8-9 in Novi, Michigan, Insurance Telematics USA 2014  on Sept. 3-4 in Chicago, and Telematics Munich 2014  on Nov. 10-11 in Munich, Germany.
For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Insurance Telematics Report 2014 , Connected Fleet Report 2014 , The Automotive HMI Report 2013  and Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013 .