It was 1956 when Greyhound first said “leave the driving to us,” but Ford, Toyota, an other automakers may soon say the same. Ford’s manager of vehicle design and infotainment Gary Strumolo says driverless cars are seen by automakers as the “logical endpoint for the technology they’ve been putting into cars for many years.” What’s more is that a lot of the new technologies that vehicle manufacturers are looking at could also change how people use not just their cars, but their homes as well.

Sensors in and around this Ford Fusion Hybrid research vehicle use LiDAR - Light Detection and Ranging - to scan the road 2.5 million times every second. LiDAR uses light in the same way a bat or dolphin uses sound waves, and 
can bounce infrared light off everything within 200 feet to generate a 
real-time 3D map of the surrounding environment.
Ford Sensors in and around this Ford Fusion Hybrid research vehicle use LiDAR - Light Detection and Ranging - to scan the road 2.5 million times every second. LiDAR uses light in the same way a bat or dolphin uses sound waves, and can bounce infrared light off everything within 200 feet to generate a real-time 3D map of the surrounding environment.

In vehicles now, tools like cruise control, anti-lock brakes, back-up cameras, and assisted parallel parking are automated technologies that are already relieving drivers of some tasks. Consider these the DVRs, programmable thermostats, and occupancy/vacancy sensors of home technology. But the same way homes still need their owners to manage technology, Strumolo notes that certain situations would require autonomous vehicles to transfer control back to the driver in situations that warrant human decision-making. “You’d have to bring the driver’s focus back to the driving so he’s not reading his newspaper or checking his phone,” Strumolo says, “but how do you do that?” The technologies being considered to answer that question could also change how builders, remodelers, and architects design homes.

All Eyes on You

A primary example of vehicle management technology are cameras that Strumolo says could be mounted in and around a cars to give vehicles a sense of the driver’s activity and the car’s positioning. Further physiological instrumentation, such as heart rate-monitoring seats “could aggregate the information into a ‘driver workload estimate,’” Strumolo says. Being able to identify whether a driver is calm (a low workload estimate) or distracted and experiencing stress (a high workload estimate), the vehicle would respond differently. “If a phone call comes in and the workload is low, the vehicle could let the call go through,” Strumolo offers as an example. “If it’s a high workload, we could send the call directly to voicemail. That way, we don’t add to the driver’s stress, which is key.”

Beyond heart rate and stress monitoring, Strumolo suggests that vehicles could be equipped with more advanced biometric systems that could be especially helpful for older drivers or those with health concerns like diabetes. “[Medical device company] Medtronic has a glucose monitor that doesn’t only measure blood sugar level, but also shows your trend,” Strumolo says. “Low blood sugar could be a particular problem if you’re operating a vehicle, and we’re interested in understanding how to take advantage of that technology.” He says Ford’s Sync system has the potential to connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth to get the user’s glucose reading and communicate it to the driver. The technology may sound superfluous, but consider its helpfulness in case of an accident. A vehicle that has data on its driver’s medical conditions and vital statistics could send that information to ambulance drivers en route to an emergency.

In GE's imaginative Home2025 concept laundry machine, a virtual closet will allow users to choose outfits, and dispense them ready to go.
In GE's imaginative Home2025 concept laundry machine, a virtual closet will allow users to choose outfits, and dispense them ready to go.

Consider this scenario at home: Motion detectors identify that several people are in the kitchen, temperature sensors notice a boost, and biometric monitors detect higher-than-normal stress levels. Perhaps preparing Thanksgiving dinner isn’t the best time to bother the hostess with a reminder about the dog’s vet appointment next Tuesday, so the system could set that alert for another time. It might also tell the furnace to take a break while things cool off. And if the rigged-up turkey fryer catches the garage on fire, a connected home security system could easily alert emergency services.

Home automation with biometric monitoring has great potential for aging in place as well. Motion sensors can help caregivers identify their loved ones’ location and activity in the home, even from afar. If a sensor shows that a senior has been in the bathroom longer than usual, caregivers can check in to make sure everything is okay. In the case of a fall or other accident, and similar to Strumolo’s hypothetical situation, biometrics could alert paramedics to their patient’s conditions, medications, and status.

The Future is Now

While the technology for autonomous driving is still a ways off, some high-tech home offerings with these capabilities are coming to
market now. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Bosch debuted a sensor (pictured at right) that can track temperature, humidity, and air pressure making it ideal for indoor navigation, HVAC, fitness, health care, and more. GE also has the high-tech home in its sights thanks to an internal project called Home2025. The manufacturer is challenging engineers to imagine what might possible in 10 to 15 years, and could foster development of biometric monitoring among other home conveniences. A laundry machine that folds and stores clothes (pictured above), or a heath-monitoring water dispenser might not be as far off as you think.

In cars or in homes, there are plenty of arguments that the world is becoming too connected, but Strumolo chooses to look at the upsides and opportunities. “We’re working on the notion of using connectivity in a positive way,” he says. “Automakers have been blasted by the Department of Transportation because they view technology as an unnecessary entertainment feature. But if connectivity can be shown to be an enabler for making people safer, it could change the national dialogue.”