Wellness isn’t the first thing you associate with getting behind the wheel of a car, is it? After all, sedentary time spent increasing your blood pressure while someone cuts you up or expanding your waistline as you absent-mindedly shovel a family pack of sweets into your mouth to alleviate the boredom of sitting in traffic isn’t exactly conducive to optimal living.
As the automotive innovation accelerates, however, the industry is shifting gears and selecting a route that leads to better health and wellness. “Now there’s the digital side, there are so many things you can do in a car and will do. The infotainment side will continue to develop in the car. The autonomous part will grow. There’s more time to do something different in the car, to be informed, to be entertained, do gaming or do a health check,” says Markus Schäfer, Mercedes-Benz’s Chief Technology Officer.
The acceleration of wellness
The automotive world is in transition, with the shift from combustion to electric propulsion, the embracing of smart digital technology and ever-increasing automation. Schäfer continues: “The car will have a different role away from mere transportation. It will be your chat partner, there will be a time when you will talk to your car like a friend, ask it for advice, you know, download your day.”
That health check comment is telling. Wellness, or Health, Wellness and Wellbeing (HWW), is one of the new frontiers in the automotive world. At a recent Mercedes-Benz event we conversed with an E-Class, breathed scented, purified air and were massaged, cooled (and heated) by the seat we sat in. It used to simply be about comfort and ergonomics, but in the past few years the concept of HWW has become ever more present in the automotive world. Analysis from the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan states that the automotive industry is on the cusp of integrating HWW technologies into cars, suggesting that critical functionalities, like blood pressure monitoring, will penetrate nearly 5% of vehicles by 2025.
Change is in the air
In-car wellness monitoring is something Ford has been researching for over a decade now. While there’s no sign of it in a production model, what is undeniable is that HWW is increasingly important in automotive, and as a result vehicles are playing an ever-increasing role in monitoring, measuring and communicating to individuals about their health and wellbeing as well as adapting to suit their particular needs.
Given the recent coronavirus pandemic, it’s not surprising that virtually every manufacturer is offering air purification possibilities. Lexus, for example, improved its technology last year with its next-generation nanoe™ X, a nano-sized water particle diffusion technology that creates a cleaner, healthier in-car environment. Developed with Panasonic, independent lab tests prove it to inhibit 99% of viruses and bacteria, as well as deodorising bad smells and preventing moisture evaporation. All the luxury brands have similar systems, and as with all technology there’s a trickle-down effect which means these systems won’t just be the preserve of expensive premium models. Over time they’ll become more affordable and available among mainstream marques.
The emergence of wellness as a distinct feature is undoubtedly a by-product of automation, and it’s one that’s now being embraced as a selling point. As autonomy continues to grow, so too is the requirement to monitor the driver in the car as a safety requirement, preventing distraction and inattentiveness. Harald Kroeger, from automotive supplier Bosch, says: “If the car knows what the driver and occupants are doing, driving will become safer and more convenient.”
The level of research automotive firms are undertaking in relation to this is far-reaching. Everything from facial recognition, heart-rate, posture, eye movement and blink-rate tracking is being looked at. Even brain activity research is being explored with the goal of increasing safety and the knock on effect of opening up new wellness enhancing features.
In the same way wearable tech such as smartwatches has revolutionised how we monitor our daily lives, your vehicle’s ability to monitor and adapt to suit your needs, be it adjusting the temperature, to calm you down with soothing light or music, or even intelligently use the sat nav to route around areas where traffic which could otherwise increase your stress, is all currently possible.
Manufacturers are also focusing on the theoretical, with Audi launching the urbansphere concept car with wellness in the driving seat. “The urbansphere concept is a sheltered haven,” says Audi user interface designer Christina Huber. “The car orchestrates a truly immersive cocooning effect by conjuring an extraordinary ambience.” The idea is to deliver that by combining technology such as facial-recgonition stress level assessments with design innovation where your ergonomic seat reclines to maximise comfort and restoration.
Picking up good vibrations
Back in the real world, Bentley has recently revealed details of the most ‘wellbeing-focussed’ car seat in the world, featuring the world first of auto climate sensing and advanced postural adjustment systems. That’s said to contribute to far greater comfort on a journey. Bentley are working with specialists Comfort Motion Global and a chiropractor to conduct medical testing of the technology, proving that it’s not just a benefit to comfort but it also has the effect of increasing alertness and focus due to improved blood flow, particularly around the lower back.
Land Rover has, with its new Range Rover Sport SV, introduced a new technology in collaboration with a Californian firm SUBPAC. A patented AI tactile audio device, the SUBPAC essentially allows you to feel music, via vibration. In the Range Rover Sport SV it’s incorporated into the seat, to create BASS (Body and Soul Seat). Duncan Smith, Senior Engineering Manager, Interior and Electrical, SVO, explains: “There are two sides to the BASS seat. First, a revolutionary approach to bringing music to life, creating a multi-sensory experience and a more emotional connection to the music. The other side is wellness. This is based on the concept of vibroacoustic therapy. There’s a growing body of scientific evidence of both mental and physiological benefits from using vibroacoustic therapy.”
With the BASS seat there are three layers of immersion. The first is haptics, which is where receptors in your skin register the vibration. The second is interoception, where the receptors in your muscles feel subtle changes in force and pressure. The third is bone conduction, where vibrations pulse through your skeleton and ultimately up to your middle ear, which adds an extra dimension to the music.
In addition to that, and in combination with a series of six wellness programmes – Relax, Calm, Balance, Focus, Energise and Wake Up – which have been designed in collaboration with Coventry University’s National Transport Design Centre and the School of Media and Performing Arts, the vibrations can be beneficial to the seat occupants’ mental and physiological wellbeing by influencing heart rate variability, lowering stress and increasing relaxation. Smith explains: “As well as relaxing, you’re more aroused, you’re more aware of what’s going on, and as a driver that’s an ideal situation.” Having experienced it first hand, it’s undeniably impressive in relation to the audio experience but, similarly, the wellness claims feel entirely credible and convincing, too.
It’s early days, but as manufacturers look for more ways of differentiating their products, exploring new ideas and adding innovation, wellness is set to play in increasingly important role. As Benz’s Schäfer states during this disruptive phase in the history of the automobile: “I’m more than 30 years now in the car business and this is the most exciting time.”