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Wheels: Designing cars for old folks

With drivers worldwide living longer, automakers target a mature market.

Nissan employee Naoki Yamamoto prepares to drive as he wears an "aging suit" designed to simulate the physical effects of aging at the Nissan Technical Centre in Atsugi, west of Tokyo, April 15, 2008. (Kiyoshi Ota/Reuters)

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.