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Mobile coupons are getting really mobile lately, as marketers increasingly look for ways to tempt you with deals while you’re driving. Now one carmaker has dreamed up a new way to deliver coupons to drivers – by having street lights beam them directly to your car.

Ford has received a patent for an in-car communication system that can receive signals from overhead street lights, and translate them into ads and coupons.

According to Ford’s patent documentation, a “smart” street light “does more than simply shine light on the road.” The most basic smart street lights aim to save energy, by detecting passing cars and people, and lighting up only when someone is nearby. But more advanced versions, Ford explains, “can monitor weather conditions, air pollution and lamppost inclination, satellite navigation corrections, vehicle location and velocity, etc.”

And they can deliver deals to you as you drive.

Ford envisions it all happening via its SYNC system, a standard feature in most new Ford models. The in-vehicle technology allows drivers to use voice commands to control Bluetooth-connected devices, get directions, a weather forecast, or other information.

The street light system will allow SYNC to read an ad to you for a local business, or alert you to a nearby coupon offer. Why smart lights, instead of satellites? “Vehicles can be geolocated more accurately and reliably than with GPS,” Ford explains.

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“The signals from the lights can indicate deals, business locations and proximity to a driver location,” Ford’s patent documentation continues. And in order to help provide more relevant deals, “the system may communicate vehicle data to the street light system. This can include occupant data, vehicle speeds, heading and location information.”

The system will be able to use additional information such as the time of day, weather conditions and driver preferences, to prioritize deals. If it’s lunchtime, for example, and a driver has shown an affinity for McDonald’s, the driver might receive a coupon offer for a Big Mac. If the driver likes ice cream, but it’s early morning and 40 degrees outside, a deal at a local ice cream shop might not be delivered until another time.

Ford’s concept isn’t the first to envision lights as a coupon delivery system. Philips and GE have created indoor overhead LED lights that can communicate with smartphones and deliver digital coupons, by blinking in rapid pulses that are undetectable by people.

It’s also not the first concept to envision your car as a perfect place to pitch products to you. GM’s competing OnStar in-vehicle system debuted a new “AtYourService” feature this year, which, among other things, will alert you to nearby coupons and deals. But it’s not quite as high-tech as it sounds – the coupon component only comes into play after you ask an OnStar representative for directions to a business, and if the business happens to have a coupon available, you might be offered one.

Ford’s system appears to be the most advanced, but it also has the potential to be the most annoying. You may not want to be bombarded with unsolicited advertisements every time you drive down the street, or be alerted to coupons you don’t plan to use.

Ford hasn’t said when its new technology might be available, though it probably won’t start showing up in cars until there are enough smart street lights for the cars to communicate with. Ford says fewer than 200 shipments of smart street lighting were made worldwide in 2012, but that number is expected to reach 1,100 in 2020. That may not be enough to make a wide rollout worthwhile.

So until then, you’ll have to get your coupons and deals the old-fashioned way. And at least your drive will be a little quieter.

Photo by Keoni Cabral

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