From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Auto Makers Look to Technology to Extend Safe Driving Years of Nation

Two developments that can’t be ignored by auto makers are high energy prices and the growing proportion of older drivers on the nation’s roads. Nimble manufacturers are already retooling to build fuel-sipping vehicles. The research and development world, meanwhile, is wrestling with ways to extend the safe driving years of the nation’s seniors.

Until demographers broke the news about how rapidly they were gaining on other road users, older drivers didn’t feature large on manufacturers’ business plans. Times have changed: the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety projects that by 2030 one in four drivers will be 65 or older.  As age does nothing to diminish the preference for car ownership and personal mobility, seniors will soon command a significant share of the automotive market.

“They’re not only the fastest growing group of drivers on the road in the U.S., but they are driving more miles per year than previous generations," said Cynthia Owsley, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham who has worked with the auto industry on high-tech windshield designs. "This has enormous implications for road safety in our country," she added in a July interview with the Associated Press.

It’s a road safety issue because of the tyranny of aging. Vision and hearing deteriorate over time. Osteoporosis, which shrinks and weakens the skeleton, often sets in. Flexibility deteriorates, and for drivers manipulating controls and getting in and out of a vehicle, arthritis is a curse. And many seniors will develop cognition-related disabilities.

No one is looking at technology to overcome age-related disability, but a survey of current R & D efforts on manufacturers’ web site and in newspaper and magazine articles shows engineers, designers and ergonomists are relying on it to safely extend older drivers’ years behind the wheel. 

Enhancing Abilities and Minimizing Disability

Several manufacturers are developing the overlay concept – transparently overlaying data, such as speed and gear selection, onto the windshield so drivers don’t need to take their eyes from the road. Some systems, notably BMW’s 5-series cars, can also project directions and alerts from the navigation system onto the windscreen. These systems provide another form of instrumentation, duplicating the function of other devices in a more easily seen location.

General Motors (GM) was the first auto maker to make the head-up display (HUD) commercially available.  The technology, developed by Asahi Glass, Nippon Seiki and DuPont Automotive, has been available since 2005 as standard on several GM vehicles in the United States and as an option on some others. According to DuPont, the distortion-free, HUD display communicates driver-selected information, such as navigation, performance and vehicle speed, to the driver. The virtual image appears to float in the driver’s line of sight near the front of the car, minimizing refocus time. Virtual image location and brightness can be adjusted to the driver’s preference. DuPont says that together, these features help to reduce driver distraction and enhance safety.

Some cars already feature head-down displays, small screens in the dashboard that show an enhanced view of what is in front of the car.

GM researchers are working on a windshield that combines lasers, infrared sensors and a camera to take what’s happening on the road and enhance it, so aging drivers with vision problems are able to see a little more clearly. As explained in the July AP article, GM’s new windshield won’t improve their vision, but it will make objects stand out that could otherwise go unnoticed by aged eyes.

The developers say the technology won’t cause drivers to plow into trees. It is enhancing just a few objects that are already in a driver’s view, not splashing distracting information onto the glass. For example, the AP article notes, during a foggy drive, a laser projects a blue line onto the windshield that follows the edge of the road. Or if infrared sensors detect a person or animal in the driver’s path during a night drive, its outline is projected on the windshield to highlight its location.

A transparent coating on the windshield that lights up when struck by ultraviolet light underpins the innovation. Sensors determine the position of the car in relation to the road, while other devices track the driver’s head and eye movement to make sure the image on the windshield isn’t skewed.

This GM experimental technology will offer one improvement over the HUD system, which is projected onto a small area of the windshield and can only be seen if the driver’s head is in a certain position. "What’s novel here is it’s the entire windshield – no little headbox,” said GM researcher Thomas Seder in the AP article. “You can see the image from any position."

Head-down displays can be helpful, but a common vision problem in older drivers is a difficulty adjusting to different visual planes – looking down at something close and then back up and out to the road ahead. "If I can keep their eyes out of the vehicle, so they’re not looking down as much, that’s a really good assistive technology," Seder said. He added that he wants to provide technology to help older drivers but that isn’t distracting or overwhelming at the same time.

Chrysler LLC spokesman Nick Cappa told AP that his company is working on similar windshield technologies, but declined to provide details. Ford Motor Co. spokesman Alan Hall said that automaker didn’t have any similar plans.

GM’s Opel division in Europe is exploring a forward-looking camera system that is able to detect and interpret street signs, speed limit signs and other important road-side features and warn the driver of their presence.

Japan’s Nissan Motors uses a special “elderly” suit to help its ergonomics engineers develop vehicles and features for customers of advanced years. Working on the principle that the mainly young engineers need to know how it feels to have typical age-related disabilities, they wear the suits as they design. Dark colored glasses simulate poor vision and gloves simulate the reduced dexterity that can come with arthritis and similar conditions. The suit simulates reduced flexibility and maneuverability by adding bulk in key areas of the body, such as the knees, elbows, stomach and back.

It’s not a new idea. Ford Motor Company developed the "Third-Age Suit," in conjunction with the University of Loughborough, almost a decade ago.

Industry Partners

The AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States and Loughborough University in England are among several major academic institutions that are industry partners in the R & D drive.

The BIONIC program at the Loughborough Innovative Manufacturing and Construction Research Centre, in conjunction with Honda, involves the design of novel, highly tactile controls that were demonstrated in road trials to reduce the visual demands of driving by up to 30 percent. The system gives drivers the ability to control a range of systems using the controls without taking their eyes off the road.

Loughborough’s BOSCOS (Bone scanning for occupant safety) program aims to develop an in-vehicle system for assessing passenger bone density and using the information to adjust the performance of safety restraint systems to minimize injury.

At the MIT AgeLab, some 20 aging studies are investigating factors such as driver fatigue, the impact of technology inside the vehicle and how emotions and medications affect driving.

Miss Rosie, a Volkeswagen New Beetle, is a mobile lab used for research into how flexibility and strength affect driving performance. Miss Daisy, another New Beetle, and the AwareCar, a Volvo, are wired to track eye movements and to measure pulse, alertness and stress levels, as a measure of the kind of physical changes older people undergo while driving.

Joseph F. Coughlin, founder of the lab and director of the Department of Transportation’s New England University Transportation Center at MIT, said the findings could change how cars are designed. Cars of the future, he said in a recent interview with the New York Times, may have computerized dashboard displays where the driver could choose a type size and font that was easier to read, and could be customized to show only the information the driver found useful. There may also be collision notification systems and a way to route medical records ahead to the ambulance after a crash. A computer inside the car may someday adjust how it operates, depending on the physical weaknesses and range-of-motion limitations of the driver.

Though they are shown to be comparatively careful drivers, seniors account for a high proportion of highway fatalities. A 2001 report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety noted that drivers 65 and older will be involved in a quarter of all fatal traffic crashes by 2030. It’s because they are fragile, explains study author Susan Ferguson. “When they get injured, they die.” 

The institute calls for automakers to install less rigid seat belt systems that won’t cause shoulders and ribs to break, and use air bags that inflate with less force.

Nissan is one of several manufacturers with a big R & D investment in vehicle technology for seniors. If the company’s approach can be read as a trend, the drive for technology to extend the safe driving life of seniors is unlikely to introduce special vehicles for them. Etushiro Watanabe, associate chief designer for Nissan, explains that the company has no intention of building an “elderly” car. "The improved ergonomics benefit drivers of all age groups," he said in a recent interview with Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.

Sources: DuPont; Associated Press; Institute of Highway Safety; New York Times; Nissan; Globe and Mail

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-07-23.