Ford tests roadmap for smarter telemedicine

Ford tests roadmap for smarter telemedicine

Image courtesy of Ford.

On the exterior, the Ford Endeavour -- one of the best-known midsize SUVs in India -- may look like just any other rugged all-terrain transportation option.

But the company hopes the advanced technologies accessible through the vehicle, including wireless communications and an open-source development platform called OpenXC, could inspire smarter and more cost-effective first responder and telemedicine solutions for rural communities, under-served urban areas or developing economies.

Ford researchers recently completed a nine-month pilot test of these capabilities in Kodamaathi, a small rural village in India with an above-average infant and maternal mortality rate compared with other regions.

The program, Sustainable Urban Mobility with Uncompromised Rural Reach (SUMURR), used Ford Endeavours with mobile phones and laptops to bring medical care to where it was needed, including areas that are difficult to reach with other modes of transportation and where communications networks haven't penetrated. In all, the initiative visited 54 villages, facilitating community awareness among 3,100 people and helping 41 women deliver their babies more safely.

Assisting Ford with the SUMURR project were organizations that included the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Health of the Government of Tamil Nadu, George Washington University, IIT Madras Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI), Reliance IIT Center of Excellence, the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Hand in Hand India and the University of Michigan.

"SUMURR is an initiative to harness the potential of affordable technologies with innovations that address local contexts for sustainable growth," said Ashok Jhunjhunwala, founder and co-chairman of RTBI and a professor of electrical engineering at IITM. "From voice-based local language interfaces to a portable system architecture that covers significant aspects of women and child healthcare, it is heartening to note that this program has not only democratized technology but is also finding acceptance and adoption of the technology with the rural mothers and healthcare personnel."

Image courtesy of Ford.

Spurring innovation in rural communities

What's in it for Ford? David Berdish, manager of social sustainability for the automaker, said the pilot was intended to inspire public-private collaboration that might reshape how health care is provided in both rural and urban locations.

While Ford isn't planning to develop the applications itself, its OpenXC technology, developed in collaboration with Bug Labs, lets entrepreneurs and innovators write custom software applications that take advantage of the global positioning satellite information or wireless data features included in many Ford vehicles. The platform can be used in conjunction with Android mobile devices.

In the India pilot, for example, Ford researchers created a database application that could be used by nurses or health care providers to collect patient information, store it within the vehicle and transmit it to specialists or hospitals as necessary.

It's yet another example of how the Internet and cloud computing, which provides access to software applications and services from far-flung locations, could spur new models for smart city and community services, said K. Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader for open innovation at Ford.

Because cellular communications signals weren't always reliable in the areas reached by the India pilot, the researchers focused on ways of turning the cloud into a "local cloud" that could connect to the broader Internet while on the go, he said.

That capability could make its vehicles, from sedans to SUVs, a more attractive investment for cities and communities. That's because fleet vehicles could be outfitted with multiple custom applications that could make them useful for more than one purpose.

Additional SUMURR projects are being evaluated in other parts of rural India and Alaska, as well as China and Brazil. "The fundamental aspects of what we did in rural India could very much wind up in the driveways of Detroit," Prasad said.

Still, Ford's focus on India makes a lot of business sense as a place to start exploring. The company operates a vehicle and engine manufacturing facility in Chennai and has invested $1 billion in a second facility in Sanand. It plans to expand its sales and services operations to approximately 500 locations by mid-decade.

For more about the project, see this video: