At the Forward with Ford 2011 conference I attended in Dearborn last week, one of the hottest topics of conversation among attendees – many of whom were old hands at tech conferences – was how well organized it was. Ford made everything easy.
Cars and buses with color-coordinated signs arrived on time to haul us to and from our sessions. There were plenty of helpers, every one of whom had answers to questions or found the person with the answers.
Meals, served in large halls or in a tent, were tasty, healthy and well prepared and although there were speakers at each meal, there was time to get to know some of my seat mates.
And, you know how pictures on hotel room walls usually range from so garish they keep you awake at night to so bland they melt into the walls? This hotel went for Ford history. Much more interesting.
In preparing for the conference, my biggest question was this: What are you doing to help keep elders driving safely for more years?
I didn't need to ask. Having noticed that all those baby boomers are gradually entering old age, Ford is developing a multitude of design, safety and infotronics innovations to meet those needs in their cars.
One of their aids is what Ford calls the “third age suit,” much like the AGNES suit the MIT Age Lab invented, so that young designers can know what the physical difficulties of old age are.
The session on aging opened with a Q&A hosted by a Ford executive with an “expert” in boomer marketing. Although the questioner gets an A for effort, I've never before heard more generalizations, banalities, psychobabble and misinformation in one 20-minute period of time.
According to the woman, boomers are responsible for everything in the past 60 years including “the Sixties” (hullo – they weren't old enough. The civil rights movement, women's movement and anti-Vietnam War movement leaders were all born in the 1920s and 1930s.)
Inexplicably, three times, maybe four, she referenced disposable diapers as a meaningful boomer gift to the world (ask an environmentalist about that) and according to her, boomers are not going to tolerate the “wasteland of elderhood.”
You will be glad to know that as difficult as it was, I restrained myself from interrupting every 30 seconds to correct her.
I did, however, buttonhole the Ford executive who conducted the interview when the presentation ended explaining that boomer is not a synonym for old and that there are more than 35 million of us who are older than boomers. We buy cars too, but we are nothing like boomers or, at least, nothing like what is attributed to them by the media and uninformed opportunists like this “expert.” (Of course, she had a book to flog.)
I corrected some of her mis-statements and suggested that Ford might benefit from better research about marketing to boomers - and to those of us who are older than they.
He and I had a good conversation and perhaps, since Ford is making many good efforts to develop elder-friendly cars, I was heard.
There is a large amount of health-related technology being incorporated into Ford cars that will be of use to anyone, but particularly old people. Here are just a few being developed by Ford with outside partners:
• a multi-rocking seat to keep blood moving during long rides
• a heart-rate monitor built into the seat
• connectivity via Bluetooth for medical devices
• apps to monitor such things as pollen levels and air quality for people with asthma and allergies
• diabetes monitoring
I was surprised to learn that 20 percent of all health dollars are spent on diabetes management, and that some states in the U.S. require physicians to report hypoglycemic events to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
(Which makes me wonder how long it will be until these smart cars automatically report such events. Now there is something – safety notwithstanding - to give one pause in terms of privacy.)
In addition to health monitoring, there is, or will be soon, a large amount of infotainment through Ford's SYNC technology which was launched in 2007 and continues to expand. There is a three-part “apps ecosystem.”
Built In to the cars are such services as 911 and vehicle health.
Beamed In are SYNC services such as weather, stock information, hotels, Pandora, horoscopes. etc.
Brought In apps via the driver's iPhone or Android, iPod and other gadgets.
Ford engineers explained that devices change so quickly that their platform is constantly updated. The goal is to make the car always adaptable and upgradable to what is new.
Now you may wonder, as I did, how a driver is expected to keep his or her “eyes on the road, hands on the wheel,” as Ford puts it, with all this activity in the car. That's where advanced voice recognition comes in.
I tried that several years ago with a past cell phone to be able to call by voice. It took way too much training of the phone to know what I was saying, it mostly failed and I've ignored voice recognition since then as not ready for prime time.
That is no longer so.
A Ford voice control engineer, Bridget Richardson, explained that the company's voice recognition system now understands 10,000 commands. What's intriguing about those 10,000 is that many are synonyms so that drivers no longer need to memorize commands.
In the past, for example, if the gas gauge was alarmingly low and you hadn't seen a service station for miles, you would need to say a system-specific word, like “fuel.” If you said “gas” or “petrol,” the software would not recognize what you want.
Now, close to real-life human speech can be used. So you can ask, “Where is the next gas station?” Or “Where can I eat?” In a demonstration of the speech recognition system, several of us asked the same question each in our own way and got the answer we needed. Work continues to further improve voice recognition.
Most important, with so many in-car services, is that drivers can interact with nearly all of them via voice. In one intriguing experiment, engineers tested searching for a particular song on a handheld device and on the Ford SYNC system. It took 50 seconds with the handheld; 4.9 seconds with SYNC.
This post has gotten way too long and I've omitted most of what I learned.
The two days were enlightening and enjoyable. We were kept moving from session to session, but never felt rushed. The Ford helpers, scientists and developers were smart, informative and friendly folks. The conference was extraordinarily well organized and I met a number of interesting people among the attendees.
Well, except for one. At breakfast on the last morning, a woman veered from her path toward me, peered at the name on my credential and said, “You're Ronni Bennett? You and I are enemies,” and stalked off before I could catch her name. I never saw her again so I'm left to wonder indefinitely what I did to her.
The only thing I am sorry about is that there was not time to visit the nearby Henry Ford Museum.
Overwhelmingly, it was a WOW experience. None of what I saw was pie-in-the-sky, someday, Jetson stuff. All of it exists now, is being improved upon and/or will be available soon.
If I have some reservations about all the “fun” apps and entertainment Ford is stuffing into their cars, it is likely because I have never experienced the love affair so many Americans have with driving; I just want to get there.
But millions of people will enjoy them - nothing wrong with that - and I believe the safety and health monitoring advances along with such helpful technology as the park assist I showed you yesterday will help give elders additional years of precious personal freedom we all fear losing.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ralph Lymburner: Filling a Void