Can Ford disrupt the drive with cars that care?

Ford connected car
© Ford

We're living in the future, and while it's exciting to see the effects of new technology and solutions on our world, it's also an age of contradictions. Our huge advances in technology and science have ushered in a new age of energy, transportation, communication, education, and health, and yet at the same time, have also brought about a whole new set of problems.

The development of the gasoline engine enabled a whole new level of transportation and commerce that were impossible to even imagine before then, and we've seen the growth of the global economy and the overall quality of life improve because of it. But we've also seen great strife and conflicts and environmental degradation as a result, and our fossil fuel addiction has been one of the drivers of climate change and pollution and resource depletion.

Our technology has also brought the world even closer to us by enabling easy access to people across the globe, and the sharing of news and information is easier than ever, in most cases with just a single click. The educational and health resources available on the web have made a huge difference in people's lives, and our advances in personal devices and portable gadgets have put powerful tools for transformation and change in the hands of the average citizen.

However, that same technology may also be responsible for alienating many of us from our so-called 'real lives', and while our gadgets may bring us closer to the global community, they can also distance us from our local community and actual human contact. For instance, how often do we see a group of people that are all together in physical proximity, but are each looking at their smartphone instead of at the people they're next to? We're so wired that we need laws telling us that we can't text or tweet while driving, because the urge to be connected can overpower our common sense.

However, if those two areas, transportation and connection, were designed to work better together to enhance our so-called 'real life', it's possible that at the intersection of transportation and communication, our cars and our devices could help us move toward a richer and healthier life.

At a recent conference, Further with Ford 2013, I attended two seemingly dissimilar panels that ended up with quite a bit of overlap (at least to my way of thinking). One of them was a discussion on "Returning to our senses" (about digital overload and health and wellness), and the other one was about "Disrupting the drive" (the potential for advanced technology and connected devices to enhance the driving experience).

In the wellness panel, we heard about how Google has integrated meditation classes into their workplace, as a way for people to harness their "inner technology", and about the work being done at Stanford's Calming Technology Lab, and from MIT's Sherry Turkle about our tendency to be "alone together" because of our digital addictions.

As a digital media guy, I am well aware of the insidious effects of trying to be always wired and always on, while also trying to maintain my interpersonal connections, so while the speakers were informative, it wasn't until we got a glance at the direction that car and mobile tech is taking that I could see some common ground.

Ford's Gary Strumolo explained to us about the coming "car that cares", where a true crossover between auto tech and health and wellness can happen, and while some of these innovations are still a ways out for the average driver, the implications for the future of transportation technology are huge.

Ford Glucose monitoring© Ford

The development of a seat that can monitor the heart rate to sense the driver's so-called "workload estimate" and not only provide real-time feedback, but also help mitigate the driver's stress levels through intelligent decision-making with the car's technology was one example given for a "car that cares". Another example was a wireless glucose monitoring system for diabetics and an allergen monitoring system for asthma and allergy sufferers, both connected to the car's SYNC system, that could offer alerts or route changes for better health while driving.

I had to wonder how distracted the driver would be if they were always paying attention to their car's technology instead of the road, and how much that technology would serve to push us further toward a digital dystopia, even while driving, instead of supporting our health and wellness, and it wasn't until the panel on disrupting the drive that I could sense an integrated strategy capable of balancing both sides of the coin.

The introduction of Ford's concept vehicle "Evos", accompanied by a discussion between Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Ford's Jim Buczkowski, had a big focus on the aspect of technology as a tool and an enabler for better experiences. In the future, our car might be a central part of our personal technology bundle, in that it can serve as a platform for connecting our mobile devices, our homes, and our energy consumption, while also acting as a smart cloud-driven device that can learn from our past in order to predict our needs in the near future.

Our cars may one day be able to reroute us on a less challenging driving route because we're stressed out or distracted, or they may be able to disable distracting features on the car when we're on a twisting road and have a higher "workload", such as sending our calls straight to voicemail. Our cars may one day be an integral part of our home energy strategy, such as a vehicle-to-building system that could charge and store electricity at off-peak hours for use during peak times, or be able to teach us how to drive more efficiently in order to use less energy.

We may be able to use our car's connected systems to better monitor our health or the local air quality, and still keep our eyes on the road through the use of voice commands.

Although technology, automobiles, health and wellness, and the environment may seem like disparate topics, once the dots are connected between having better tech that works for us (as opposed to having tech that distracts us) and cleaner and more efficient transportation, the case for a more connected car of the future is pretty strong.

If we combine the ideas of cloud-connected cars (especially hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric cars powered by cleaner energy sources) with smarter houses, smarter devices, and smarter cities, all with the ability to communicate, it's quite possible that the future of transportation will not only be greener, but will also improve our health and well-being.

Sure, it's not as healthy or as green as riding our bikes everywhere, but the reality is that our car culture is here to stay. And the only question now is, how can we make it as healthy and efficient and useful as we can?

[Note: Ford provided for my travel and lodging for this event, but all opinions are mine alone.]

Can Ford disrupt the drive with cars that care?
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