SUMURR Project

Recently, we have been taking a closer look at an issue that is closely related to urban mobility: providing economic opportunities for people in rural communities. We’re currently examining how automobiles can be part of the solution, from transporting food and water to supplying power from renewable energy sources stored in the vehicle. Improving opportunities for mobility in rural areas may also help alleviate migration to urban areas and thereby slow the problem of urban congestion.

We have been developing a new project that we are calling SUMURR – Sustainable Urban Mobility with Uncompromised Rural Reach. The project is exploring ways we can use our vehicles to add value to society by improving four critical needs – the delivery of potable water; primary education; health; and renewable energy – in India and Brazil.

An initial pilot project will focus on primary health in the Chennai, India, region, where Ford has manufacturing operations. In the poorer rural communities that surround the city, women often neglect their own health, largely because it’s difficult to access health care.

“Women feel guilty about taking time away from their families and their demanding lives to travel to the hospital and then spend time waiting to see a doctor,” said K. Venkatesh Prasad, group and technical leader of Ford’s Infotronics Research and Advanced Engineering team. (Prasad is sometimes described as the “What’s Next” guy responsible for software technologies within Ford vehicles.)

Rather than have the women travel to a hospital for health care, the project will take the hospitals to them, in the form of a Ford vehicle equipped with medical supplies and “tele-present” medical practitioners. A mobile broadband connection in the vehicle would enable “telemedicine” service, provided by a doctor back at an urban hospital. (A partnership with a health care provider was under development in the spring of 2011.) The idea is to have the mobile health applications designed, built and managed by local social entrepreneurs, working with the best clinical service and technology providers.

As an incentive to use the service, the patient would also receive a container of drinkable water – an important commodity in the rural regions of Chennai.

“A project like this comes with a deep sense of reward in playing a social role, because it empowers the local communities by identifying entrepreneurs within them,” said Prasad, who grew up in Chennai. “But obviously we’re also a business, and we can take our learnings from projects like these back into creating products that will drive new global business opportunities with a sharp local focus.”

We also are exploring ways we can use our advanced technology vehicles to provide technology to people in rural communities who lack access to computers and digital devices. Prasad described these projects as a form of “digital suffrage” for emerging markets.

We expect these projects to develop more fully in 2011 and 2012, and we hope to have more details – and results of our efforts – to share in our 2011/12 Sustainability Report.