Boomers grew up idolizing automobiles – the ultimate symbol of independence, swagger and style. Whether their first car was a sporty Mustang, a muscle car or a hipster Beetle, this generation of drivers continues to influence the auto industry more than any other, demanding innovation, performance and luxury.
From Tesla’s autopilot driver assistance to built-in WiFi hotspots, push-button starts, windows that clean themselves and automatically deflect liquid, and NASA-approved car seats that prevent fatigue, automobiles have come a long way since most Boomers first slipped behind the wheel. Today, advanced technology – such as rear cross-path detection, blind-spot warnings and semi-autonomous features – is ensuring also that this generation of drivers will stay safely on the road much longer. And that’s a good thing. Driving represents freedom (whether you’re 16 or a few decades older), which many scientists believe is important for aging in place and overall health.
A 2016 review of 16 studies revealed that people aged 55 and older who gave up driving often experienced declines in general health and physical, social and cognitive function. Another 2016 report notes that people who stop driving can experience social isolation. However, the times they are a-changing and, with their middle-age-forever attitude, Boomers aren’t about to hand over the keys: The auto industry wouldn’t want them to.
In 2017, automakers sold a record 2.038 million cars, with sales up in all categories, including luxury vehicles. Kijiji’s newly launched Autos Research Report reveals Boomers are more likely to upgrade their vehicle and are quicker to make buying decisions. Automobile manufacturers are paying close attention to the 50+ crowd, who make up about a third of the Canadian population, while sporting deep pockets and a strong desire for the latest bells and whistles: They are steering the automotive industry, challenging engineers and designers to make cars easier, safer and more fun to drive.
Kristine D’Arbelles, manager, public affairs, for the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), says three manufacturers stand out for delivering progressive features that meet the evolving demands of this powerful demographic.
“Subaru has been rated several times as designing some of the best cars for older drivers, because they put a heavy focus on access, control and visibility,” says D’Arbelles, adding that Subaru’s vehicles are designed so that drivers don’t have to do a large over-the-shoulder movement to check their blind spot, while offering multiple ways to adjust seats and steering wheels.
D’Arbelles also cites Toyota’s Collaborative Safety Research Center in Michigan as a proactive initiative. “They’re looking at that particular generation and making sure that the vehicles coming out are built with [them] in mind.”
Ford’s industry-leading wearable technology has had a big impact on vehicle design, she says, and the company has been especially innovative in that area.
Wearable technology that inspires forward-thinking design
Recognizing that this generation of drivers used to “make out” in the back seats of their muscle cars, but now may find their own muscles slightly taxed when getting in and out of today’s vehicles, some manufacturers are proactively addressing these concerns.
To that end, Ford incorporates inclusive design principles into its vehicles. Its groundbreaking Third Age Suit enables designers and engineers to experience first-hand how drivers physically interact with cars by simulating challenges with joint mobility, hand strength and neck motion, along with changes in hearing and vision, says Katie Allanson, an experienced design researcher in the User Experience Group at Ford Motor Company’s global headquarters in Dearborn, MI.
“We’re teaching empathy to engineers who may not have experienced [these issues] themselves, giving them an idea of what it’s like to get in and out of a vehicle, put on your seatbelt or adjust steering-wheel controls,” says Allanson, who worked as an ergonomics engineer and human factors specialist at GM and Chrysler before joining Ford. She now leads development and usability testing of touchscreen systems while also evaluating driver-assist technologies and other semi-autonomous features.
Allanson says that since the first suit was launched as a training tool in the mid-1990s, it has travelled across North America and to Germany and Brazil, influencing the way physical and digital components in vehicles are created, benefiting everyone, but especially older drivers. For example, easy-to-access seatbelt positioning on the B pillar, combined with a stiff seatbelt mating piece, enables drivers to fasten it with one hand. And the top line of the sill – the opening of the vehicle – is now higher so that drivers don’t have to duck when getting in.
“We also eliminated or reduced the lip on the bottom part of the door, so you don’t have to lift your foot as high to get out of the vehicle, which was problematic for people with hip, knee or ankle mobility impairments,” she says.
Digital nomads on the road
Allanson adds that tech-savvy Boomers increasingly want their cars to keep pace with the other tech they use on a daily basis, so making auto technology more intuitive and inviting is vital. Ford uses colour contrasting and clear fonts on their screens for easier viewing, and gesture-recognition controls instead of clunky knobs. The technology mimics the one drivers use for their tablets and handheld devices.
“I think that’s setting us apart: We’re leveraging the technology that another branch of electronics has taught them, and putting it in the vehicle so it’s familiar to them,” she explains. “People are excited to drive their cars and try out the technology.”
Moving forward, Allanson wants to further explore voice control systems – what people say and what the system can respond to.
“If you look at what’s available in handheld technology, people are adding to their grocery lists, changing the temperature in their homes, and they don’t have to learn commands. They just tell Alexa, and it’s done,” she says.
“If we could leverage what they’re doing outside the automotive industry, I think that would be really big for us. We could talk to our cars and not have to worry about designing a system where the buttons make sense.”
Wow, Boomers and their automobiles certainly have come a long way since the days when the beloved Beetle made headlines for its then-revolutionary two-speed windshield wipers.
Ford is targeting active Boomers with its 2019 Transit Connect Wagon, designed as the ultimate hybrid hauler for budding entrepreneurs, weekend warriors (where else are you going to put that paddle board?) and taxiing the grandkids about.
Combining comfort (extra padding on the seats; hip-high, slide-in driver seat; low, two-foot lift from the ground to load floor) and technology (floating 6.5-inch screen supporting Ford+Alexa personal assistant functionality; 4G LTE modem for connecting up to 10 devices; wireless charging and a suite of sweet driver-assist features), the seven-seater is a cross between a cargo van and a minivan.
Driving autonomy with technology
In an effort to help keep us all behind the wheel as long as possible, researchers at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute recently introduced iDAPT DriverLab, a virtual-reality driving simulator that will study the impact of health on driving performance by examining how aging, mobility, fatigue, medication and automated driving systems affect us, says TRI’s senior scientist, Dr. Geoff Fernie, an assistive technology expert who helped invent the simulator.
The $4 million simulator, mounted to a converted Audi A3, is the only full-motion simulator in Canada and is unique in the world, says Dr. Fernie. While other simulators primarily optimize the design of cars, his team is more interested in understanding the challenges of driving and how to solve them. One goal is to develop a model for customized licensing, rather than insisting that aging drivers give up their keys.
“When people have their keys taken away from them, it’s a disaster and a huge loss of independence – as you get older, you need your car more, not less,” he says. “We thought, instead of having to take your keys away entirely, you could demonstrate you’re capable of driving safely in daylight, for example, but not on the multi-lane expressway in the rain at night. So the idea was both to be able to keep people driving for longer, but also to protect the population from people who shouldn’t be driving in certain circumstances, but based on solid evidence.”
Testing elements are very realistic: For example, after age 45, driving with the glare of oncoming headlights becomes a bigger problem; there are four times as many serious accidents at night per kilometre driven, says Dr. Fernie.
“With other simulators, when a car comes toward you at night, you see two white spots, but they’re only as bright as the projector is. We have a robot with very bright, light-emitting diodes on its arms,” he explains. “The headlights coming toward you are very carefully superimposed over the arms of the robot, so they glare into your eyes in a very realistic way.”
As we get older, driving in the rain becomes more challenging, adds Dr. Fernie, especially at night. The simulator actually rains onto the windshield, rather than projecting water on a video screen.
Dr. Fernie adds that he’s often asked why he’s embarking on a years-long study in a simulator when autonomous cars will soon be driving people around.
“First of all, there’s a lot of hype involved in that. In fact, you’d have to be a more expert driver for quite a long time to drive an autonomous car [rather] than a less-expert driver,” he says.
“But also, people actually enjoy driving; otherwise, they’d buy little utility cars that just go at the speed limit. But they buy cars they take pride in, and they enjoy living in their cars as much as in their houses sometimes. I think it’s the feeling of independence that means so much to people; it’s an expression of their personality.”
Sit Back and Relax: Self-driving cars
Changes in visual acuity, flexibility, strength, memory and reaction time can affect our ability to drive as we get older. Are self-driving cars the answer?
PhD candidate Shabnam Haghzare is studying the acceptability of autonomous cars among older adults byrecording experiences in iDAPT DriverLab, a driving simulator at Toronto Rehab-UHN.
Study participants first drive in manual mode in different simulated road conditions – normal, rainy and trafficky – then with the car in autonomous mode.
“The goal is to understand how older drivers will interact with or trust autonomous vehicle technology,” says Haghzare.
The study, led by Dr. Alex Mihailidis, AGE-WELL scientific director and a U of T professor, will offer insights into how driverless cars can be modified for older adults.
Originally published in Issue 02 of YouAreUNLTD Magazine. PG. 62