K. Venkatesh Prasad has been working in Detroit for the past five years on an innovation that could be described as the next big crazy idea that might just work.
As the senior technical leader in vehicle design and infotronics at Ford Research & Innovation, Prasad oversees development of voice-activated apps and wireless services that would enable motorists to monitor their own health and chronic illnesses on the road.
During a panel discussion earlier this week at the Wireless Health 2011 Academic and Research Conference in San Diego, Prasad said development of in-car health and wellness technology is part of a broader effort to expand the capabilities of Ford’s SYNC in-car connectivity system. “We were saying if all we did was connect the mobile phone to an online digital music player that it wouldn’t be enough,” Prasad told me.
Ford’s initiative remains mostly in the R&D stage. While the Dearborn, MI-based automaker is looking broadly—and literally—at mobile health, Prasad said, “We’re not trying so much to prove out specific examples. These are really research experiments and investigations.”
Still, the company demonstrated just how its in-car wireless health could work in a Kona blue metallic Ford Edge parked outside the conference. Using voice-recognition software much like the SYNC system and “MyFord Touch” features available in current models of the crossover SUV, the car’s automated voice offered pretend guidance to address a low-glucose reading.
Ford (NYSE: F) has been working with Fridley, MN-based Medtronic (NYSE: MDT) to develop a prototype wireless health system capable of connecting to a continuous glucose monitoring device Medtronic makes for people with diabetes. Ford’s SYNC system uses Bluetooth to connect with the monitoring device, which would share its monitoring data with the SYNC system, which could then query the driver (or a passenger) and offer advice if blood glucose levels are too low or too high.
Ford is developing a similar prototype that could gather online data about pollen levels and other allergens, combine it with GPS-based contextual information, and offer advice to motorists with allergies, asthma, colds, and other sensitivities.
The work at Ford these days, however, is focused mostly on how the SYNC platform can be expanded to operate a variety of similar health and wellness applications. “Why should a billion cars around the world today, with at least a billion human beings in them, be isolated from the analytical powers that exist when they get home or when they get to the hospital?” Prasad asked.
Citing Ford CEO Alan Mulally, Prasad says the Dearborn, MI-based automaker today views the automobile as a technology platform, “and the Ford Motor Company is a technology company that also makes cars and trucks.”
Ford also has been wooing app developers throughout the United States and Europe to expand the capabilities of its technology platform even more. As Xconomy reported in June, Ford’s online SYNC Mobile Application Network has drawn thousands of submissions, increasing the likelihood that cars will eventually become smartphones on wheels.
As this health IT platform becomes more capable, it can empower motorists in new ways, said Anand Iyer, the president of WellDoc, a Baltimore, MD-based startup that has FDA clearance for a mobile technology that helps people manage their chronic diseases.
Iyer and Prasad have been working over the past six months to integrate WellDoc’s cloud-based health information system with Ford’s SYNC system to provide individualized advice for those with asthma or diabetes. Using voice commands, SYNC users can access and update their WellDoc profile to receive real-time patient coaching, behavioral education, and other help, on their medical history and current diagnosis.
Both Prasad and Iyer emphasized, though, that the value of SYNC system as a technology platform will only increase as SYNC becomes an aggregator of information from a variety of sources. “The value starts to increase because it now adds context,” Iyer said. In this respect, Iyer says the vehicle’s technology platform provides substantial advantages over a smartphone that might be equipped with similar technology for continuously monitoring blood glucose levels. By connecting to SYNC through a Bluetooth-equipped smartphone connected to WellDoc, Iyer said, “It’s understanding the driver workload. It’s understanding the rich context of when a vehicle is braking, and [asks,] ‘Is it just because there’s a spot in the road, a pothole, or is it because the traffic density is so large—or is it because the driver is wobbling?”
By some estimates, Iyer added, American motorists spend 500 million hours in their cars commuting to and from work each week. “So use that captive time to provide [health] content, educational content, and interventional content.”
Once Ford gets its health platform ready, “I think you’ll just see this opportunity that can reach everywhere,” Prasad said. “The power here is that we can reach out to all parts of the world. We sell cars in every continent except Antarctica and health knows no boundaries. Healthcare is important everywhere.”
With American commuters spend 500 million hours a week in their cars, Prasad reasons that drivers around the world easily spend 2 billion hours a week driving to and from work. “That’s a lot of time, and a lot of opportunity to sort of rewire the planet,” he said.