Wheels: Designing cars for old folks

SUN CITY, Arizona — We’re all gonna die!

Always wanted to write that line.

But more and more — globally — we exit stage left at a much older age, having lived more active lives into our final years than any generations in human history.

It was here in Arizona more than a decade ago that I first noticed this. In this, America’s first planned retirement community, little old ladies darted about public streets in dangerous fashion on golf carts. Little old men, in the big old Cadillacs they’d always wanted, held death grips on their steering wheels as they craned to see over the dashboard and crawled at snails’ paces along the same streets.

This aging trend presents a problem for automakers worldwide. But also an opportunity: How do you subtly build a car that best — and most safely — suits what is fast becoming a burgeoning population of elderly drivers around the world?

After all, it has long been said that you can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but you can’t sell an old man’s car to either group.

At the Nissan Technology center outside Tokyo, engineers are working on it. Consider it an instant aging process.

In its design center here, Nissan’s so-called "age suit" turns younger test subjects into elderly drivers.

The intent: discover what sorts of equipment — from knobs and handles to what seat height gives optimal views from within the car — can be installed to benefit drivers as they grow older.

In the industry, these subtle bits of help are called "hidden enablers."

You may never realize that that new Chevrolet Corvette into which a midlife crisis has driven you has had its seats raised about an inch in recent years so older buyers can enter and exit the car more easily. Or that those big L-shaped door handles that look suspiciously like the bent end of a cane are there so they can be more easily gripped by arthritic fingers.

Nissan is hardly alone in the quest — Ford Motor Co., for instance, calls its disabling accoutrement a "Third Age Suit." And the approaches have one thing in common: external disablers that replicate what are the usually internal infirmities that come with age.

(Editor's note: the following video comes from Nissan. Skip ahead to the 3:44 mark to see the "aging suit" in action)

 

 

And so these "hidden enablers," developed through the use of these suits, have found their way into a broad range of Nissan and upscale Infiniti brands, according to Etsuhiro Watanabe, associate chief designer at the Nissan Design Center.

The research, Watanabe said, "applies to a wide range of ergonomics studies that is integrated into our vehicle design across our product line-up.’’

Spoken like a true engineer.

For instance, the Around View Monitor provides a potentially life-saving bird’s eye view of the vehicle and its surroundings, using four ultra wide-angle high-resolution cameras mounted on the front, sides, and rear of the vehicle.

It is an important safety feature for any driver, and for a less mobile elderly driver minimizes the need to painfully crane the neck for better views. The suit mimics this infirmity.

But why the emphasis on elderly drivers?

It's because as they encounter slower reflexes, crotchety joints, diminished vision, and other infirmities, their time on the road can be more dangerous.

The numbers bear that out.

In the U.S., for instance, older drivers have higher rates of fatal accidents than any group except the youngest, least experienced drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In 2006 people 65 and older comprised 14.1 percent of all traffic fatalities, 13.5 percent of vehicle occupant fatalities, and 18.9 percent of pedestrian fatalities. In that year, this older age group accounted for 15 percent of licensed drivers.

By 2030, the institute said, those 65 and older will make up a quarter of the driving population.

It is not, of course, just a U.S. phenomenon.

Globally we are living longer and are more active. And even as the percentage of total population for those over 65 increases year by year, many countries are also seeing a decline in birth rates, according to national census and United Nations reports.

Japan, for instance, with 22 million people over 65, will have more than 30 million eldery in less than a decade.

In Germany, one in five residents is 60 to 79 years old, and, as in other countries their children — many now in the 40- to 59-year-old bracket — are catching up to them, if not in actual age, then in longevity.

So we are fast approaching a time when the elderly will be sharing time with their elderly children.

And hence, Nissan’s age suit and its manifold purposes.

As to the credo of old cars for old people, Watanabe said, "Please allow us to clarify. Nissan has no intention of building an elderly car."

While the suit  "does simulate some of the mobility limitations experienced by the elderly, this greater understanding of this age-group's specific needs will help our designers translate this into more ergonomic designs across all our vehicle line-up," benefiting drivers of all ages, he added.

When asked if donning the suit also gives its wearer the urge to move to Florida, Watanabe had no comment.

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