Wearable devices have become one of the most popular trends in recent years. To date, runners and joggers seem to have benefitted the most, with wrist phones and fitness trackers growing in popularity.
But soon drivers may get in on the action, with the Ford Motor Company training its high beams on wearable health and fitness trackers to be used in its vehicles with the goal of increasing driver safety.
From the better world standpoint, we thought that no one is really looking at bringing health and wellness inside the vehicle, said Gary Strumulo, Ford s global manager for vehicle design and infotronics, during an interview with Wareable.com.
While Ford hasn't set any official timetable, the company opened its Automotive Wearables Experience lab last month in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford's researchers there hope to develop a device to track many driving-related health indicators. For example, they want the wearable to monitor the driver's sleep and stress signals.
We want to understand that stress level and so we were interested in making measurements of stress," said Mr. Strumulo. His team plans to use heart rate, skin temperature and galvanic skin response data (sweat monitoring) to do this, typical things you d see in a lie detector machine.
Ford's driver-health initiative comes amid a new National Safety Council report that U.S. driver deaths had jumped more than 8 percent from 2014 to 2015, "the largest year-over-year percent increase in 50 years." While the NSC said that "many factors likely contributed to the fatality increase," no health related issues were cited as a cause.
"Just in the US alone," said Mr. Strumulo of Ford, "it's estimated by the Department of Transportation that we spend 500 million commute hours per week in our cars. We saw this as a great opportunity to monitor (drivers') wellbeing."
His team also wants to look at chronic illnesses that drivers may have, such as diabetes.
If they go hypoglycemic they get confused, lightheaded and suffer blurred vision, Mr. Strumulo said. "That's a big problem when you're operating a car."
Ford's team is considering developing the ability to alert drivers when their blood-sugar levels get too low, so that they may take the right steps before it becomes a problem. Technicians are looking to place sensors on car seats to do this. While feasible, Mr. Strumulo believes this may prove an expensive and lengthy process.
You have to schedule a procedure to get those seats put in, he said. You make a decision on technology and typically it takes about five years for the car to be released.
One issue raised by the monitoring of a driver's health signs is that of medical information privacy. Specifically, would the wearables simply track personal data, or would this information be collected and stored? If so, what precautions might be made to safeguard the data? While the wearable device is still in the early stages, Ford's press release announcing the initiative did not mention this issue.
In looking to increase safety, Mr. Strumulo and his team are looking into smartwatches and smartglasses, with the goal to get drivers off of their smartphones.
"When you're in the car, we don't want you to see your phone," he said. "We don't want you to touch your phone."
Ford started an App Challenge last month with prizes totaling $10,000 for employees who create the best app concepts, "that use vehicles and wearable devices as components." According to Mr. Strumulo, "the wearable might be a great way to get communication to you without taking your hands off the wheel or eyes off the road too much.