Car Makers Enter The Digital Health Market

When Joshua Brown died in a self-driving Tesla in Florida this May, the resulting scandal became a public relations parkour course for Elon Musk and his team. Skeptics of the autonomous driving movement pounced on the news and declared, “You see, told you it wasn’t safe.” Tesla ended up dusting the incident away quite quickly, but in its wake a lot of people are realising just how far automatic driving technology has come. And that we don’t even know the half it.

Not only are car companies trying to make the roads safer by leaving drivers out of the equation, now there are even efforts to check up on passengers’ health while they cruise from A to B. Audi just announced that it will finance the Berlin-based “Flying high health” incubator, which focuses on accelerating innovation in the health sector through an initiative called “Audi fit driver”.

Branded as a “supportive driving companion,” fit driver works in association with a smartwatch that monitors the driver’s pulse and skin temperature as proxies for his or her overall well-being. That information is supplemented with data points on driving style, breathing rate, weather and traffic conditions to create a broad view of the safety situation at hand. Audi says the car would be able to determine how stressed or fatigued the driver might be, and then act accordingly. Responsive measures could include a seat massage, the introduction of soothing lighting, temperature changes and, if everything goes according to plan in the development schedule, an emergency stop.

Another big German car maker, BMW, has been working on emergency stops since 2009 already. Together with the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, BMW has been developing SmartSenior, a system that offers intelligent responses to senior citizens’ health problems. If a high-risk situation is detected in the car an emergency stop assistant brings it to a halt.

The system relies on sensor technologies such as lidar (a detection system that uses light from a laser), radar and camera recording. These monitors make it possible to securely pinpoint where the car is in relation to the other vehicles and objects in its vicinity. Digital maps and positioning data from the GPS system not only enable the research prototype to remain aware of the lane the car is currently in, they also provide the driver with precise information on the road ahead. The technology lets the motorist know if there is a hard shoulder available, for instance. This data is then processed further and used as the basis to decide how to stop the car without endangering others.

Across the Atlantic, Ford’s contribution to automotive digital health has been in the form of a diabetes management system. Their technology links up with an app by welldoc to make recommendations based on users’ glucose levels, medications, exercise habits, and diet. The system also has the potential for location-based services that inform drivers about healthy restaurant options close by.

Ford also plans to go into a partnership with Medtronic to make continuous glucose monitoring possible in cars. The proposed system would make use of bluetooth to communicate trends through the sound system and dashboard. Non-driver passengers would also benefit given that anyone could be connected with a glucose device, including a child in a car seat.

These health interventions by Audi, BMW and Ford are still in the early phases of development, but if investment is anything to go by, this trend promises to make your car one of the safest places to be.


T L Andrews


TL Andrews is a multi-media journalist based in Berlin. He produces features for radio, television and print outlets with a focus on German and European issues.

LinkedIn | More articles by T L Andrews