The Baby Boom generation is about to cause a surge in the proportion of older drivers on the road. Several auto makers are thinking ahead, and are researching ergonomic design innovations to accommodate the changing abilities associated with aging. One potential benefit of this foresight is increased road safety. Another is the automotive industry’s bottom line: Seniors will soon command a larger share of automotive sales.
Japan’s Nissan Motors uses a special “elderly” suit to help its ergonomics engineers develop vehicles and features for customers who could be 30 years older than they are. Ford Motor Company developed the "Third-Age Suit," in conjunction with the University of Loughborough, almost a decade ago. The suit shows engineers and designers what it feels like to have typical age-reduced abilities.
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.
Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper covered the industry’s sharpened awareness of the demographic shift to older drivers on May 30. In an interview with the newspaper, Etushiro Watanabe, associate chief designer for Nissan, explained that the company has no intention of building an “elderly” car. "The improved ergonomics benefit drivers of all age groups," he said.
According to the article, the University of Florida’s National Older Driver Research Center has documented many of the latest innovations designed to either soothe or prevent irritation of certain health conditions. In partnership with the American Automobile Association, the university recently released a chart that matches drivers’ woes with specific cars and their on-board modifications.
Someone with diminished mobility, according to the newspaper, could benefit from wide-angle mirrors, heated seats with lumbar support, or the likes of Nissan’s Around View mirror, which uses four wide-angle cameras to show the driver any obstructions during parking and minimize the need for head-turning when reversing. A senior with vision limitations might seek out larger audio and climate controls with contrasting text or infrared night-vision cameras, such as the ones seen on luxury cars from Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Seniors won’t be the only beneficiaries. The newspaper article points out that a study published in a 2006 issue of the journal Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation found the Federal Highway Administration’s recommended improvements for seniors generally result in fewer driver errors and increased confidence among younger drivers (ages 25 to 45) nearly as often as among older ones (65 to 85).
Sources: Nissan Motors; Ford Motor Company; Globe and Mail