From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Ergonomics Lets That Little Sports Car Double As Gramps’ Sedan

Notice anything a little more appealing about that hot little sports car, that shiny SUV or that big, comfortable sedan? Could be that auto manufacturers are designing all of them to work a little better with the population, particularly as the population ages.

Door handle shapes, larger font sizes on the dash and better lighting on the gauges are just a few of the modifications U.S. car manufacturers have been quietly making over the years to keep up with an older population. And in a recent Associated Press story, Fred Lupton, ergonomics supervisor at Ford Motor Company, noted that today’s aging population is driving “well into their 80s.” So for car manufacturers, like Ford and others, accommodating aging drivers is a matter of financial sense.

But to achieve the goal of making cars more drivable for older drivers, ergonomics has to be part of the picture, and to really understand how to design for an aging market, engineers have to know something about the limitations of the driver. At Ford, that means engineers and designers don specially designed suits that mimic some of the physical limitations of older drivers like cataracts, arthritis or somewhat limited mobility (they also have similar suits they use when designing for pregnant drivers). Wearing the suits offers the designers a good indicator of what works and what needs to be changed in each design.

But that doesn’t mean every car rolling off the production line is soon going to be Gramp’s sedan. It could mean, however, that everyone will have an easier, safer and more agreeable time behind the wheel. “The last thing we want to do at Ford is build cars for older people because older people won’t buy them,” Lupton told the AP; but that doesn’t mean the cars can’t agree with everyone a little more.

Recent design modifications in Ford’s cars include more accommodating door handles for people with arthritis, additional grab handles to make getting in and out of the cars simpler, beepers that signal when the car, while in reverse, nears an object, and simple illumination of the dash that rules out blues and reds as Lupton states these colors become “more difficult to discern” as the eye ages.

However, MIT’s Joseph Coughlin, Ph.D., director of the school’s AgeLab, noted in the same article that, with all of the bells and whistles being incorporated into today’s cars to make driving simpler, what may be forgotten is the level of distraction that comes with these cars.

“As we make the car more intelligent, the older driver is more likely than the younger driver to have difficulty managing that increased work load,” said Coughlin.

Source: Associated Press

Want to know more about designing for an aging population? See the November, 2003 issue of The Ergonomics Report