Automakers are learning that they still can’t move quickly enough to keep up with the consumer electronics industry, which now dictates so much of what goes on inside cars.
The new lesson: Ford has reportedly decided to scrap a project to develop seats that can detect heart attacks and perform other health-monitoring functions, because wearable digital devices already accomplish those tasks.
The Financial Times reported that Ford “quietly abandoned” the project that the automaker had been touting as recently as last fall. That’s when it updated journalists on its progress on a seat that could monitor a driver’s cardiovascular system for irregularities—and even potential heart attacks—by using a camera and sensors on the steering wheel, then engage steering and braking systems to safely stop the car.
Ford also was working on glucose-level monitoring and included these health-monitoring possibilities in the S-MAX concept car that the company unveiled in 2013. “We see health and wellness as a core area” for in-car digital technology applications, Paul Mascarenas, who then was Ford’s chief technology officer, told brandchannel in 2011. “People spend almost an entire week a year on the road, and that’s expected to increase,” he added. “The car is a private space for conducting personal business.”
Even last year, Ford executives were talking about using their health-monitoring technology to “stay ahead of consumer trends,” after noting that “new sensor technology and wearables will provide more precise measurements that will improve the experience we can offer.”
Ford opened an expanded research office in Silicon Valley this year, as many automakers acknowledge the need for the latest consumer electronics and other computerized features in new car models. This requires a sea change of advancement in an industry that, until a decade ago, moved slowly with product overhaul cycles stretching into years.
Meanwhile, the consumer electronics industry has only intensified pressure on its automotive counterparts. Devices like Apple Watch and other wearables have overtaken the digital leap Ford was planning for passive monitoring of a driver’s vital statistics and for greater involvement in providing non-automotive data and feedback to its occupants.
Instead, wearable tech brands seem to have trumped Ford, and presumably other automakers, in this whole area of application. The auto sector fears, as the Financial Times reported, “the future value of the car will be in the electronic technology and software ‘brains’ linking all the functions together, rather than the steel they have been engineering for decades.”
It’s curious that Ford, of all automakers, would be caught out by the obsolescence of a digital technology base that would have been hard-wired into vehicles.
After all, it was Ford’s revolutionary introduction of Sync several years ago that turned telematics upside-down by allowing owners to connect smartphones and other personal digital devices with their in-car infotainment and communication systems. That was in sharp contrast to the previous reigning paradigm in the car industry, led by GM’s OnStar platform, whose capabilities are hard-wired into the vehicle’s own electronics system.
This is likely not the last time automakers will learn a tough lesson— because now they must compete in a digital arena that seems to be moving too fast for them.