AACHEN, Germany – Ford Motor Company is developing a raft of innovative technologies for an aging society; these include a virtual reality CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) which enables engineers to assess the practicality of future interiors.
Engineers have also developed a “third age suit” to simulate restricted movement and dexterity, and a seat that can monitor a driver’s heart-rate and detect irregularities.
“We’re not just a car company – we are also a ‘lifestyle enabler,’” said Sheryl Connelly, manager, Global Trends and Futuring, Ford. “That involves making sure our customers are equipped with efficient and well-designed tools that allow them to live their lives the way they desire.”
Founded in 1994, the Ford Research and Advanced Engineering Centre in Aachen, Germany, plays a crucial role in the development of Ford products around the globe. It collaborates with suppliers, institutions and universities worldwide to make sure each Ford model meets the demands and needs of an ever-changing population. This includes responding to and improving the health and wellbeing of Ford’s customers.
Virtual reality CAVE
The effectiveness and quality of vehicle interiors can now be tested long before any new prototype model is actually built. Engineers observe the ease of driver and passenger interaction in a virtual reality environment called CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment).
User-testing gauges the emotional responses of virtual drivers and passengers to the virtual interior and this helps engineers to fine-tune the layout to ensure the comfort of future occupants.
CAVE is used in conjunction with Ford’s “third age suit” to improve understanding of the needs of some more mature drivers; however, virtual reality testing can bring real-life benefits for people of all ages, shapes and sizes; allowing engineers to create interiors which take into account customer needs at the very beginning of the production process.
“Third age suit”
Ford engineers have created a padded “third age suit”, incorporating gloves and goggles, to better understand the difficulties faced by some older drivers; the suit may also be used to gain a better understanding of mobility challenges faced by people of any age.
A corset and shoulder straps restrict upper body and hip flexibility; further straps around the knee, elbow joints and feet, simulate stiff joints; and a rigid collar reduces head movement.
Latex gloves simulate a reduced sense of touch, a potential consequence of diabetes, while fingerless mitts simulate a reduction in manual power and dexterity. Earplugs are also worn to simulate hearing loss; goggles demonstrate the consequences of different eye diseases, including glaucoma and cataracts.
ECG driver’s seat
More people die annually from cardiovascular disease than from any other cause1. Ford is developing a seat designed to detect cardiovascular problems and issue an advanced warning that may give the driver time to pull over.
The prototype seat employs electrocardiograph (ECG) technology to monitor the heart’s electrical impulses and detect signs of irregularity that can provide an early warning that a driver should seek medical advice. The Ford ECG seat has six built-in sensors that can operate through the driver’s clothing – as opposed to a traditional ECG machine where metal electrodes are attached to the skin.
Ford aims to develop the system in conjunction with voice-activated in-car connectivity system SYNC. This could open up the possibility of the driver’s mobile phone being used to send a message to medical centres to alert doctors, who can then analyse the data and advise patients on the next course of action.