Ford looks to introduce health, wellness apps to its cars

By Eric Wicklund
01:09 PM
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Cars are already being programmed to parallel park, sense slippery road conditions and alert drivers to impending collisions. Soon they’ll be helping diabetics monitor their blood glucose levels, detect unhealthy air conditions and offer wellness advice.

That’s the plan from the Ford Motor Company, which is working with healthcare companies WellDoc, Medtronic and SDI Health to include health and wellness in-car connectivity solutions on the Ford SYNC platform. The platform makes use of AppLink to allow drivers to access smartphone apps by voice control.

With studies showing that Americans spend more than 500 million “commuter hours” per week in their automobiles, the concept of providing access to information while they’re driving or stuck in traffic is certainly attractive.

“Ford SYNC is well known in the industry and with consumers as a successful in-car infotainment system, but we want to broaden the paradigm, transforming SYNC into a tool that can improve people’s lives as well as the driving experience,” said Paul Mascarenas, chief technology and vice president of Ford Research and Innovation.

In a May 18 announcement, Ford is joining with WellDoc, a Baltimore-based developer of chronic disease management solutions, to integrate WellDoc’s DiabetesManager System in the SYNC platform to help people with type 2 diabetes manage their disease while in their car. The integration is designed to allow diabetics to enter data such as medications, exercise and diet information through speech-to-text interaction while in their vehicle, then gain access to WellDoc’s clinical decision support tools.

“WellDoc was founded on the concept of helping people manage their chronic disease with the help of everyday personal tools that are easy to use and accessible on a regular basis,” said Anand K. Lyer, WellDoc’s president and chief operating officer. “People with diabetes must adhere to a strict regimen to manage their disease. Through our research with Ford, we’ve created a unique in-vehicle environment that supports those with diabetes so they can be continuously connected to the tools that help them maintain their daily routines without interruption.”

K. Venkatesh Prasad, group and technical leader for Ford’s Infotronics Research & Innovation team, said WellDoc approached the carmaker about three years ago with a chronic disease management plan for the company’s employees. Aside from referring WellDoc to Ford’s Human Resources department, he said Ford’s “SCI Lab” researchers suggested embedding WellDoc tools in the SYNC platform.

“WellDoc came to us with a 0-mile-per-hour discussion and left with a 70-mile-per-hour option,” he said.

Ford is also working with Minneapolis-based medical device maker Medtronic to develop a prototype glucose monitoring system for the car, allowing the SYNC platform to connect via Bluetooth to a Medtronic device to continuously monitor a diabetic driver’s blood glucose levels. Since diabetics suffer disorientation and mood swings and can even lapse into a coma if their blood glucose levels are too high or low, a continuous monitoring solution offers an important driving tool and could be a life-saver.

Also, Ford is working with Plymouth Meeting, Pa.-based SDI Health and www.pollen.com to enable access through SYNC to a smartphone Allergy Alert app, giving users voice-controlled access to location-based day-to-day index levels for pollen and ultraviolet sensitivity.

“Our developers initially created the iPhone app to provide users with greater access to the information they’ve come to rely on from pollen.com,” said Jody Fisher. SDI’s vice president of marketing. “Having instant, portable access to their conditions helps users plan their day or week ahead so they can remain active, which ultimately improves their quality of life.”

Prasad said Ford officials have worked hard to counter concerns that health and wellness apps would distract drivers.

“It’s like a highly targeted radio station,” he said, “not like dialing out with your phone. (The system uses) voice activated controls to access cloud-based services.”

“It’s a scenic detour that you take with wellness in mind,” he added.

“Ford’s approach to health and wellness in the vehicle is not about trying to take on the role of a healthcare or medical provider. We’re a car company,” added Gary Strumolo, Ford’s global manager of Interiors, Infotainment, Health & Wellness Research. “Our goal is not to interpret the data offered by the experts, but to work with them to develop intelligent ways for Ford vehicles using the power of SYNC – in essence, creating a secondary alert system and alternate outlet for real-time patient coaching services, if you will.”

Prasad said Ford researchers are looking into other health and wellness tools as well, including apps that would help drivers find the nearest medical provider or pharmacy or choose a restaurant and make appropriate diet decisions. In addition, Ford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been studying how technology could be used to reduce driver stress and improve driving performance.

“Health and wellness provides a tremendous opportunity for Ford to provide peace of mind and a personal benefit to drivers and passengers while they are in our vehicles,” said Strumolo. “As more and more devices and technologies lend themselves to such connectivity in the car, it is our responsibility, our philosophy, to examine those possibilities and open our doors to industry relationships that can help us do it intelligently, efficiently and economically.”