Dashboard of a car

Vehicle technology and the older driver

As we are living on average 15 years longer, the automotive industry is discovering ageing drivers may have different technology needs from their younger counterparts.

It is a perk of modern livingcars get more comfortable, more efficient, and more technologically advanced as each year rolls by. These days even the most tech-savvy driver might be tempted to open the manual before attempting to push the key into the ignition, because it probably isn't the ignition at all.

But the increasingly tech-packed standard car model runs the risk of alienating an important sector of driving society: the senior driver.

"There is no doubt that the driving population is getting older and there is a great reluctance to take older people's licences away," Bernard Porter from Coventry University's Integrated Transport and Logistics Grand Challenge Initiative says. "The driving factor behind it really is that vehicle technology is changing rapidly and is becoming unfamiliar to people. The concern we have is the adaptation older drivers will have to make. If you think of mobile phones as an exampleit is not an easy technology to get used to. We see that rate of change happening in vehicle design now, particularly displays, dashboards and instruments."

Much has been said about an economic 'time bomb' due to an ageing society, thanks to the 'baby boomer' generation and greater life expectancy due to better fertility and mortality decline. The majority of people across the developed world can expect to live 14 years longer than their grandparents.

This situation is often painted as a burden to the rest of society, but there are opportunities too. After all, when was the last time the car industry was faced with a new emerging market representing 868 million people, many of whom will have more disposable income or wealth than previous generations of older people?

The ageing index

In 2000 only a few countries had a greater number of people over 65'than those under 15 years, known as the ageing index. By 2030 all developed countries will have in excess of a ratio of 1:1 on the ageing index, and in countries such as Japan this is likely to reach 2:1; that's two older people for every one aged under 15.

The percentage of world population aged 65 and over only increased from 5.2 per cent in 1950 to 6.9 per cent in 2000, but higher rises are notable in Europe (14.7 per cent in 2000) and Japan, where it increased from 4.9 per cent in 1950 to 17.2 per cent in 2000. This trend is set to increase for the world as a whole - the number of older people will grow from 6.9 per cent of the population in 2000 to a projected 19.3 per cent in 2050. Again, we will see significantly higher numbers in Europe and Japan.

Assuming the world's population to be seven billion, this 12.4 per cent increase in older people represents approximately 868 million people. Of course, not all of these people will drive, but imagine designing a vehicle that will increase the likelihood of these individuals being able to continue to drive for 10, 20 or even 30 years?

In the US authorities expect the number of drivers aged over 70 to triple in the next 20'years. The Ministry of Labour for Japan estimates that 24 per cent of workers are over 55 and this will rise significantly over the next 20 years.

"The companies who can address this the quickest and deliver the best solutions will have a decided market advantage," Porter adds. "We are certainly seeing several of the Japanese companies showing a lot of interest in it because it is a fact that the age of the Japanese population is growing more rapidly than most Western economies. Japanese vehicle manufacturers have been quick to latch on to this and some of the Europeans have been a bit slow to react.

"At Coventry University we engage completely in participatory research, which would involve testing ergonomics of car designs with older and disabled people, with specific account taken of different mobility, hearing and dexterity impairments.

"We also engage with manufacturers and make recommendations regarding design features that will assist or compensate for physical decline such as entry and exit, seating and view span. Other areas of research might include development of the active rather than passive dashboard - with a wider range of audible and visual prompts or warnings using mirror and rear views and health monitoring via sensors for movement, respiration and heartbeat via the steering wheel, gearstick and seat."

Cars for the future

Coventry University has, alongside Nissan, recognised the significance of two global challenges that face our society currently and as such created the 'low-carbon vehicle' and 'ageing society' Grand Challenge Initiatives to address the needs of our collective futures. This places the university in a unique position to work with forward-thinking car manufacturers to ensure they are leading the market when it comes to designing cars for our future drivers.

"Designing traditional cars to adapt to this new emerging market is fraught with constraints," Porter says. "However if we are able to 'design in' such features when developing new low-carbon vehicles the cost efficiencies and consumer benefits should prove very attractive to those who share this vision."

A recently-formed research group brings together the many areas of study which have relevance to the design of the human-machine interface, and the skills of many staff already working in these fields with the automotive industry. One key scientific capability is the combination of cognitive and physiological measurement techniques applied to vehicle control. This underpinning of ergonomic design has relevance to vehicle interiors, ride and handling characteristics and integration with the road and traffic environments. A motion-capture facility also provides additional modelling of ergonomic design and has been used in a comparative study of vehicle accessibility.

The purpose of the new research centre is to provide a wide-ranging capability in measurement, experimental design in human factors, and vehicle design practice. It is envisaged that this will have particular relevance to the needs of older drivers and passengers.

In-vehicle distractions

However, it is not all good news for the automotive industry. Alongside a growing market segment there are also the growing safety concerns surrounding the ability of drivers to concentrate amid the barrage of visual and audio inputs.

"We know that there has been legislative action in the US to minimise in-vehicle distractions for drivers because at any age there is an issue about whether the driver can give the road their full attention," Porter says.

"One of our research areas is to study the faculties - the difference in perception that older drivers have and their ability to handle all the extra information that is being thrown at them both from inside the cabin and the street furniture, which has become very distracting in some cities with copious amounts of instruction and advertising signs at the side of the road.

"We know that ageing drivers will have more difficulty accommodating that sort of information for all sorts of reasons," Porter continues. "We think there is a great need for research in that area. We have done studies and are finding that it is of interest to some vehicle manufacturers - we have been approached by several. We are looking at the instrument panels of vehicles and combining that with research on external simulations to better simulate road conditions."

Old and young alike

The research is still in its early stages, with the team at Coventry still searching both industrial and national partners, but there are already some early feelings about the direction. "Our expectations would be that manufacturers would look at different driver profiles because we don't think that the market would want to segment vehicle designs along the age profile," Porter says.

"If you take small cars as examples, they are popular with both young and old for different reasons. The young driver wants a different package. They are happy with a small car, but want it to act and feel different inside - that can be anything from the audio system to dash displays, information they can get out of the vehicle. So we think that profile approach is potentially very useful but we haven't seen a great deal of product on the market that does that.

"A fairly simple example, if we look at existing car technology, would be speedometer displays," adds Porter. "In a Citroen C4 the speed readout is really large; it dominates the instrument display and I guess that older drivers would be more interested to know what speed they are doing, while the younger driver might be more interested in engine rpm. Again, an older driver is likely to be interested in information about how economically they are driving. Maybe not just young and old, but different driving styles."

AgeLab, the MIT's specialist research lab dedicated to producing innovations that allow our growing older generation better quality of life, partnered with The Hartford Insurance in Connecticut to pin down technologies that will enable older drivers to remain safe drivers for longer. Some 25 new technologies were test-driven earlier this year to produce 10'key technologies for assisting the older generation, rating benefits to mature drivers, challenges of using the technology, help with safety, help with improving operator performance, distraction, and impact on bodily crash effects.

Jodi Olshevski, gerontologist at The Hartford, says that although older drivers as a group are relatively safe, certain technologies can help to enhance their abilities. "Since drivers over the age of 50 are more likely than any other age'group to purchase the types'of vehicles that contain modern technologies, we set out'to identify the top 10 features that'mature drivers should consider."

The key is not to overload drivers with a multitude of distracting gadgets, and instead to treat extra automotive features as a support system rather than technological gimmicks. Sensors are a key technology to be exploited when designing for the mature market, with crash mitigation systems detecting when the vehicle may be in danger of a collision and drowsy driver alerts waking a driver when an internal system detects they are inattentive.

Assisted safety

Although the industry is far off the mainstream integration of autonomous vehicles, cars will start to become the eyes and ears of their driver, especially for those experiencing reduced mobility. Smart headlights will reduce glare and improve night vision, while reverse monitoring systems will warn drivers of objects to the rear of the vehicle to help a driver judge distances. Blind spot warning systems will warn drivers of objects out of their sight and assistive parking systems may take over the legwork of parking completely, enabling vehicles to park on their own or accurately indicate distance to objects.

Improved stability is also at the core of MIT and The Hartford's research. Lane departure warning systems will monitor and warn drivers if they deviate from the lane, while vehicle stability controls help to automatically bring the vehicle back into the intended line of travel if the driver underestimates the curve, gradient or weather conditions on the road.

"Technological advancements in the automotive industry are happening at a rapid rate," says Joseph F Coughlin, director at AgeLab. "As more and more of these features are incorporated into vehicles, we believe that it's important for drivers to be knowledgeable of and use those technologies that can enhance safe driving capacity, comfort and confidence."

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles