Forget The iPhone. Your Car Is The Ultimate Mobile Device—But How Far Should That Go?

5/27/11Follow @xconomy

When a car today can parallel park on its own, find the best Mexican restaurant in a 10-block radius, and access e-mail on voice command, I suppose checking your blood sugar would just seem like icing on the cake. (Pun intended)

“We are trying to create a car that cares,” says Gary Strumolo, manager of vehicle design and electronics design for Dearborn, MI-based Ford Motor’s research and advanced engineering lab. “It reflects a paradigm shift from infotainment to health and wellness. It changes the mindset quite a bit.”

Strumolo was referring to Ford’s recent announcement that it’s partnering with medical device giant Medtronic and other healthcare firms to equip its cars with technology that can help diabetics and allergy sufferers monitor their glucose levels and air pollutants, respectively.

The research comes on top of the Big Three automakers’ efforts to create cars that warn drivers when they drift into another lane or alert them to an accident several miles down the road.

“Ford has always been concerned about safety,” Strumolo says. “We saw this as an opportunity to expand beyond the conventional definition [and expand into health and wellness], a virtually untapped area relative to the auto industry. It’s a logical extension.”

Is it, though? With all the bells and whistles automakers are throwing into their products, almost anything can be considered a logical extension.

In fact, cars today aren’t really cars but rather giant, moving smart phones that harness the power of sophisticated wireless networks to download the latest doo-hickey off the Internet. In other words, cars have become the ultimate mobile device.

Think about it. A cell phone used to be about making calls. Thanks to third party applications, we can now take Polaroid-esque photos, play Medal of Honor, surf the Internet, watch videos, open our garage doors, turn out the lights, detect metal, the list goes on.

Cars are certainly heading into that same direction, if we’re not already there.

“In some sense, we do realize that people tend to multi-task,” Strumolo says. “They want to continue to multi-task no matter where they are.”

In fact, Ford’s new initiative mirrors the enthusiastic chatter I hear from healthcare experts who envision mobile devices as the central hub to managing one’s health. Smartphones today can access electronic medical records, monitor heart rates, and even help you meditate and sleep. Cars are not far behind.

“Drivers might never get into a crash in their lifetime but they will continue to have chronic diseases,” Sturmalo says.

Ford also says it’s working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to examine how car technologies can help drivers relax and reduce stress. For example, a car might sense you’re stressed from say, heavy traffic, and automatically play relaxing music, put calls to voice mail, and restrict your speed.

But how much is too much? Frankly, I get a headache when I try to remember all of things my iPhone can do and I only have, like, five apps. As for driving, well, let’s just say someone should invent something that alerts motorists when I’m on the road.

Of course, Ford notes, all of this technology is voluntary. But experience shows that people generally like their toys and feel guilty if they don’t use them. It strikes me that helping our cars do more and more things our phones do could make for the opposite of a safe driver. That could make for a distracted driver.

How ironic would it be if a driver crashes his car because he’s too busy checking his blood pressure? And a distracted driver can wreak a lot more havoc than a distracted smartphone user.

I don’t doubt Ford’s sincerity about safety. Some of these ideas, like its research into stress and relaxation, may actually help reduce road rage.

But if the automaker really wants to prevent accidents, maybe it should invent a way for a car to help drivers safely shave, apply makeup, or eat on the road.

Now that would be impressive.

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