New-wave connected cars can already sense and react to what’s around them. Next: reacting to what’s inside them.

The boom in wearables particularly devices such as FitWatches that track your activity has predictably attracted attention in the automotive world. Scientists and engineers at Ford’s new wearables research laboratory are working to integrate wearable devices and vehicles to enable driver-assist technologies to be more aware of the driver behind the wheel particularly when that driver is stressed or sleepy. The company has just opened an Automotive Wearables Experience Lab at its Research and Innovation Centre in Dearborn, Michigan, US.

“As more consumers embrace smart-watches, glasses and fitness bands, we hope to develop future applications that work with those devices to enhance in-car functionality and driver awareness,” says Gary Strumolo, global manager for vehicle design and infotronics, Ford Research and Advanced Engineering. There’s potential, they believe, in being able to tap into vital health information. The data thus gleaned could help refine the operation of in-vehicle technologies such as lane-keeping assist and Blind Spot Information System. Here’s how that could work, according to Ford: say you slept poorly or inadequately the night before, and your smartwatch tracked this. The watch could transmit this data to the car, which might react by increasing the sensitivity of  Lane-Keeping Assist. Let’s say your heart rate increase as a result of on-road stress such as driving in rush hour traffic. Adaptive cruise control or Blind Spot Information System could compensate by increasing the distance between your vehicle and the other traffic.

Currently, connected cars adapt driver aids using algorithms based on perceived driver behaviour, such as erratic steering or pedal inputs. Wearables can give a much more accurate picture of the driver’s state of mind and body. “Wearable technology integrated with the vehicle allows for more accurate bio-metric data to stream continuously and alert active driver-assist systems to become more sensitive if the driver shows signs of compromised health or awareness,” says Strumolo. Ford has also sponsored an app developer challenge for its employees, aimed at finding innovative technology to measure in-vehicle health metrics. The challenge invites app concepts that use vehicles and wear-able devices as components providing an effective health and wellness programme for customers and patients of all ages and conditions.

Even autonomous vehicles could use devices that measure occupants’ vital signs including blood pressure, blood glucose and heart rate – to their advantage by signalling the need to take driving control back from a vehicle. In the event of an accident ahead or similar emergency situation requiring a human at the wheel, the technology could send a wrist vibration or chimes, or even activate flashing lights on the dash. Another customer-focused experiment the lab is working on involves augmented reality optics, or smart glasses, and the dealership experience. Customers would wear smart glasses as they guide themselves through a showroom, seeing additional information about vehicles they’re interested in. Looking through glasses could offer a wide range of features from technical specifications to a virtual test drive.

“The potential in this space is endless,” adds Strumolo. “We’re evaluating many different wearable devices and applications – everything from helping to keep Ford drivers healthier and more aware behind the wheel to offering an enhanced customer experience at our dealerships.” Our connected lifestyle prompted a brainwave that led to an innovative wear-able solution in another area for Ford: the factory floor. At the company’s plant in Valencia, Spain, production manager Ramón García noticed colleagues and family increasingly using smartphone and tablet apps on lunch breaks and at home. Why not use this kind of activity on the production line, he wondered. So, in partnership with local software company Visia Solutions SL, Ford developed the Android-powered app. Using a new wrist-worn Portable Quality Assurance Device connected to the users’s smart device by Bluetooth, the app enables workers to make instant on-the-spot checks, stop the line as required and improve accuracy and efficiency. Notably, it saves production line workers more than a kilometre of walking every day.

“The ability to simply consult a smartphone screen to check any aspect of a vehicle’s quality and specification helps to guarantee highest levels of product quality, and improves work processes and manufacturing efficiency,” says Linda Cash, vice president, Manufacturing, Ford of Europe. Via Bluetooth the exact quality inspection requirements for each vehicle that passes along the assembly line are displayed on the touchscreen of a wrist-worn device. The new system has helped to reduce human error by 7 per cent while at the same time making each vehicle check seven seconds quicker. That’s a huge saving on at the Valencia plant, which expects to produce more than 400 000 vehicles this year. Initial feedback from production line workers has been so positive that Ford is looking to roll out the system to other plants. (Source: Ford)

This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine