My husband and I bought a new car recently. It was our first car in a decade, designed to replace our rapidly failing 2001 Subaru Impreza.
We did not buy an American car. To be honest, we didn’t even look at any American cars. The only American car we’ve ever so much as considered is a Tesla.
America made the car, and then it made the car crucial, and yet I can’t deny that they’ve fallen far behind the rest of the world in my mental calculation of automotive value. So it was with a fair amount of skepticism that I met with Dr. K. Venkatesh Prasad, the group and senior technical leader of Vehicle Design and Infotronics for Ford Research and Innovation, at the recent Wireless Health Conference in San Diego. What did Ford have to do with wireless health, and could the company responsible for the dinky Ford Fiesta really do something to impress me with new technology?
Prasad began by explaining why Ford cared about wireless health at all; as a company, he explained, Ford was constantly pushing itself to “reflect on where the world is heading,” and to “contribute to a better world.” For a car company, that means taking a deep look at what people do in cars, and how the experience can be improved for them. Prasad noted that there are about one billion cars, trucks, and buses in the world today, and that the count was rapidly approaching two billion. “In the US alone,” he continued, “we spend 500 million hours on the road each week.” And these hours in the car are not all frustration and waste; in a crowded, frenetic world, there is often “no better space for privacy than the automobile.”
In other words, Ford looks out onto a world of drivers, and asks what their vehicles can offer to improve the driving experience. And according to Prasad and his team, the key to a better driving experience is letting drivers continue to use the services, tools, and gadgets they have already chosen to use outside the car inside the car. That is, the connectivity and accessibility that we’ve all come to expect from our multi-G, Wi-fi-enabled devices can also be part of the driving experience, so that the hours we spend behind the wheel can be as effective and meaningful as hours anywhere else.
A perfect example of what Prasad means comes from one of Ford’s early partners in this area, WellDoc. WellDoc is a healthcare service provider founded in 2005, originally to improve diabetes care by integrating care management technology into patient treatment plans. WellDoc now offers a chronic disease management platform that helps patients collect meaningful data, get advice from personal medical coaches, and adhere to treatment plans. These services are all coordinated through a set of mobile health tools tailored to address the particular needs of individual patients.
The idea, then, is simple: you’re walking out of your office toward your car, and you enter your last blood glucose measurement into your phone to send to your WellDoc coach. Your glucose values have been running high lately, and you have a special dinner to attend that night, so you send off a quick message asking for advice– should you take insulin to correct immediately? Or wait? You arrive at your car, and get in; why should the conversation you’ve started with your coach have to end? Given that you’re going to spend an hour on the road, it would be very useful if you could hear the response about when to take insulin as soon as it’s available.
And that’s where Ford comes in. Ford itself is in no position to tell you whether to take insulin– they have no intention of being a healthcare company, Prasad assured me– but Ford can help patients access their third-party services while on the road just as easily as off the road.
In other words, rather than trying to pimp our rides directly, Ford intends to position itself as a platform with which third-party companies like WellDoc can integrate. Ford will ensure the car is wirelessly enabled, and then expose internal computers and software to the tools and applications built by service-providers.
This presentation of the car as a platform is a huge statement in my eyes, and it reveals two crucial things about Ford as a company:
- They are aware of the trends and buzzwords, and are not afraid to use them. Despite my prejudices that the company is an ancient behemoth, slow to catch on and slower to change, they are listening to all the excitement about platform technologies, wireless health, and (my personal favorite buzzword) the cloud– and they will not be left behind as the country enters a new technological era.
- They do not shy away from the diversity and serendipity that relying on third-party developers entails. Henry Ford famously said, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black,”  but clearly Ford has matured beyond this my-way-or-the-highway sentiment. While platform technologies can end up disorganized, a patchwork of separate creations, they expose users to the advantages of variety and choice. It is a risky move, and one I appreciate.
But how does this development philosophy work in practice? What does it actually look like to make a car a platform technology? Prasad says that Ford concerns itself now with three categories of technology inside the car: brought in, built in, beamed in. Technology that is brought in is what you already own– consumer electronics like smart phones, music players, computers, and GPSs, and also medical electronics like heart rate monitors, insulin pumps, and continuous glucose monitors. Ford aims to integrate these smart technologies, brought in by the vehicle occupants, with the built-in technologies, which are those that Ford designs and installs in its vehicles. Built-in technologies include the navigation systems, speaker systems, docks, cables, and more recently the Microsoft SYNC voice control system.
However, Ford recognizes that built in technologies are inherently limited by the rate at which cars are replaced and upgraded; consumer technology and software is improved much faster than we replace our cars, and it would be a pity to be stuck with only what was built in to the car for the life of a car. Thus, instead of focusing on building in lots of technology that will become obsolete, Ford has turned its attention to beamed in technology. Beamed in technology includes services and software that rely on connectivity to servers in distant locations, rather than on hardware inside the car—the so-called cloud. The beauty of this is that the services and applications can be improved and updated with the pace of the rest of technology, and do not rely on the manufacture of the car itself for their operation. Many of us have grown accustomed to having access to such cloud-based services via our phones and computers, and in the eyes of Prasad and others at Ford, there’s no reason we should expect any less from our cars.
Examples of this triumvirate of brought in, built in, and beamed in are already evident in Ford’s new vehicles; take, for instance, one application of the Microsoft SYNC voice control system available now: built in voice recognition technology integrates with a brought in smart phone to activate beamed in Pandora radio, which in turn plays your favorite music, stored on distant computers, through the speakers of your car.
But the goal for Prasad and his team is not just to ensure you always have access to your music playlist. They see that the potential of these new technology paradigms goes beyond entertainment, and have the power to improve the health and wellbeing of drivers. The partnership with WellDoc and others, then, would follow a similar paradigm, but to a different end. For example, your brought in continuous glucose monitor integrates with your smart phone to alert your beamed in WellDoc service that your blood sugar is 80 mg/dL and headed down quickly. WellDoc is integrated with the built in speaker systems in your car, which beep and inform you that WellDoc advises you to pull over, eat 15 grams of carbohydrates, and wait 15 minutes. Health and safety, made easier by technology.
This scenario, though, raises some important questions– let’s say your blood glucose is low, and you ignore the advice of your beamed in WellDoc system. Would the built in safety controls of the car ever take over and force you to pull over? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, could Ford itself be held liable for failing to advise the correct action if suboptimal blood glucose values precede an accident?
In response to such questions, Prasad reveals yet another benefit of being a platform provider– you can pass the buck sometimes. Ford is not aiming to provide health care services, and would not wrest that responsibility from the driver or from companies like WellDoc. The car is just the platform, the conduit, and does not itself make any decisions for the user.
Okay, so Ford can keep itself at arms’ length from health care decisions, but what about the implications of such technologies for driver privacy? Might Ford, for example, keep a record, later sold to health and auto insurance companies, of your reported blood glucose values while driving? Prasad assured me that while details were not yet clear, Ford knew well the value of privacy to their drivers. Notably, Prasad did not rule out partnerships with insurance companies, or the sale of anonymized and aggregated data to third parties, but at least the culture of and respect for privacy was clear: “We are very, very sensitive to what privacy means,” Prasad said. “That’s why people drive cars– otherwise you’d take a bus.”
So where does that leave the car-buyer like me? Will our next car be a Ford? I admit I am impressed by the promise of the technology, and of the adherence to the idea that car manufacturers should present themselves as platforms rather than trying to out-Apple Apple. But is that enough to sway a purchasing decision as big as a car?
I got a sense of my own answer to that question the other day, as my husband was playing with the built in navigation system in our new, foreign-made car: “You know, car companies should really just let me hook up my phone to the console and use it for things like this, because even the best car navigation systems are worse than Google Maps,” he said.
“Build a platform system, you mean, for third-party integration? Ford says it’s doing just that,” I said.
“Well, there you go. Cool.”
“So would you buy a Ford if you could just plop in your phone, tell Siri to give you directions, and make reservations through OpenTable on your way to dinner?”
“Eh. It’s still a Ford.” 
So, if our family is any indication, it will be an uphill battle, since a car is more than just its technological bells and whistles. For better or for worse, we want power and sex in our automobiles, and that takes more than access to Pandora and a WellDoc coach. But Ford is certainly taking steps in the right direction, and if they can find a Chris Bangle to pair with Prasad and his research team, then perhaps the next time we buy a new car, you’ll find us test driving some American vehicles, too.
 Ford, Henry. My Life and Work. 1922.
 True story—this conversation really did happen.
Karmel Allison is ASweetLife’s science editor. She writes the blog, Where is My Robot Pancreas?