The car of the future is around the corner, but the generation that laid the foundation of the American auto industry is still very much in the driver’s seat.
By 2025, 25 percent of the US population will be older than 60.
As baby boomers are entering their golden years, one of them is passing the age of 65 every seven seconds.
In 2013, for the first time, adults between the ages of 55 and 65 replaced young adults and parents in their mid-to-late 30s and 40s as the age group most likely to buy a new car.
As the driving demographic is changing, so are the cars that will be on the roads. Self-driving cars from Google are still more science fiction than nonfiction.
But researchers say parking-assistance in models on the road today will give way in five years to cars that park themselves at the push of a button. Automobile innovators are identifying the aging population as a key demographic that they need to design for, and are tailoring a whole suite of features to meet their needs.
This year, the MIT AgeLab helped form a consortium with DENSO, Touchstone Evaluations, and automakers Honda, Subaru, and Jaguar Land Rover. Calling it AHEAD, for Advanced Human Factors Evaluator for Automotive Distraction, its mission is to study driver distraction, especially as caused by in-vehicle technologies, and then try to improve the way drivers interact with everything inside their vehicles.
When the group was announced, Doug Patton, senior vice president of engineering at DENSO, explained why its role was needed.
“We know drivers want to be connected while driving,” he said, “but how do we safely give drivers what they want?”
Especially when what they want is to be connected at all times, even when their hands are already on a steering wheel.
“Aging drivers can have declining visions, slower reaction times,” said Janet Weisenberger, director of Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research. When you’re driving, visual and sound cues get your attention when something is wrong, like the beeping when the driver’s seatbelt is unbuckled.
But if the driver’s hearing is declining, what kinds of sounds work the best? Together with a partner in industry, that is one area Weisenberger’s group is testing.
Already, the analog dashboard is on the way out, with touch-screen displays replacing the assortment of knobs and buttons on the entertainment console. The next wave of car-communication will be gestures and touch-sensitive feedback, according to Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT’s Age Lab.
The Age Lab has been studying this issue for more than a decade, with the help of a donated red Volkswagen New Beetle it calls “Miss Daisy” that it turned into a simulator car filled with technologies geared toward testing older drivers. “Miss Daisy,” of course, was named after the film “Driving Miss Daisy,” about a chauffeur and the elderly woman he drives around.
‘The biggest needs of seniors could be solved with vehicles that could never [drive] on the highway,’
After years of research, however, it’s still a challenge to understand precisely how all this new technology alters the concentration of a person at the wheel, despite their age. At MIT, Reimer is looking into ways to design features so that they seamlessly convey information to the driver without creating a distraction.
The most effective approach, he explained, is to keep all age groups in mind when creating such experiences.
“There’s a joke in the auto industry: Older adults won’t buy the old man’s car,” Reimer said. For example, having large text as a preset feature is likely to put people off. Instead, a better design is a display that allows the text size to be adjusted so that someone with failing eyes can make the text larger.
And then there’s safety. For years, dummy drivers that car designers used were modeled on a figure with a very specific body type and narrow age range that skewed young.
University of Michigan researchers have found that seniors were hurt worse than younger adults in the same kind of accident.
At the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Matt Reed, the head of the biosciences group, is constructing crash test dummies that represent a wider age range.
A big reason is that older adults sit differently in their vehicles than younger drivers. Reed has found that as you age, the more you slump, and older drivers also sit a little bit more forward, and wear their seat belts a little less closely.
By having older adults sit in a model vehicle setup, Reed will help build test dummies that better depict the way older bodies will respond in crashes. But he is also creating computer models that, like a video game, can use that information to simulate all kinds of crashes.
Perhaps more than any other group, older residents in suburbs with little or no public transportation will need personalized attention the most. At the same time, suburban communities that lack the bustle and chaos of a city offer a fertile testing ground for more advanced autonomous systems.
“The biggest needs of seniors could be solved with vehicles that could never [drive] on the highway,” said Ken Smith, director of the Mobility Division at the Stanford Center for Longevity.
A custom-built, personalized metro may need an injection of infrastructure in a community, but the benefits, he estimates, will be worth the investment.
People who need to cross a few miles to get to a doctor, or the grocery store, or to their friends’ could travel around in a slow-moving system of self-driven pods that don’t go faster than 25 miles an hour, for instance.
“That could be a great test bed to put these systems out in the real world because they provide a huge amount of value,” Smith said.