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Ford has quietly abandoned a project to develop driving seats that can detect heart attacks, blaming cheaper and more accurate wearable technology on a move that underlines the rapid pace of innovation carmakers need to maintain in the era of the connected car.
The US carmaker and its rivals are jostling to be seen as leaders in new car technologies. Ford, which opened an expanded research office in Silicon Valley this year and is looking into developments such as car-sharing, recently launched a people carrier that can read speed limit signs and adjust the throttle accordingly.
The wider motor industry is fighting to keep up with demands from consumers for greater connectivity inside the vehicle while heading off the threat posed by new entrants such as Tesla, Google and, potentially, Apple.
Ford said in October that it was working on a seat that could monitor a driver’s cardiovascular system for irregularities. Using a camera and sensors on the steering wheel, the technology could potentially spot a heart attack and engage steering and braking systems to bring the car safely to a halt.
But the company told the Financial Times it was now “transitioning away” from the research project, saying advancements in wearable technology meant it was “looking at different avenues for health and wellness monitoring”.
It declined to say how much it had spent on the project — out of a research and development budget of $5.5bn in 2014.
“New sensor technology and wearables will provide more precise measurements that will improve the experience we can offer,” the company said. “We need to be smart and move at the pace of technology . . . to stay ahead of consumer trends.”
Ford stressed that the project was only at the research phase and that there were no fixed plans to put the technology into production.
Carmakers fear that the future value of the car will be in the electronic technology and software “brains” linking all the functions together, rather than the steel they have been engineering for decades.
“What the tech sector sees is a legacy industry that is slow to move,” said one senior industry insider.
Thilo Koslowski, automotive practice leader at Gartner, a technology consultancy, said: “Automotive companies are clearly still figuring out their role in a consumer electronics-dominated world.”
But he said the “chest-bumping” coming from the likes of Ford was mostly a good thing. “The automotive industry has always been way too conservative in experimenting with new technologies and organisations must have some intellectual and financial freedom to explore new opportunities,” he said.
Mr Koslowski said some investments would prove unfruitful: “But that’s a small price to pay when compared to the other option of being reduced to a simple device maker and being at the mercy of other industry leaders.”
A comment from Ford was added online after publication.