Automakers Help Aging Drivers Travel More Safely

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Ford's "aging suit" helps designers identify what is difficult for older drivers. i i

hide captionFord Motor Co.'s "aging suit" helps designers understand how difficult it is for older drivers to accomplish simple tasks like buckling a seat belt or adjusting a rearview mirror.

Ford Motor Co.
Ford's "aging suit" helps designers identify what is difficult for older drivers.

Ford Motor Co.'s "aging suit" helps designers understand how difficult it is for older drivers to accomplish simple tasks like buckling a seat belt or adjusting a rearview mirror.

Ford Motor Co.

Some car companies are developing high-tech solutions to help older people drive more safely and let them hold on to their car keys longer.

More than 20 percent of the nation's drivers will be over the age of 65 by the year 2030. That has a lot of people worried because the oldest drivers tend to get into accidents about as often as teen drivers. And since losing driving privileges is a big deal, especially in this country, automakers are working to give people better options than public transit.

We lose all sorts of abilities as we age — like turning our necks to see what's coming into the blind spot. More than a decade ago, Ford Motor Co. developed a special "aging suit" to help designers feel and understand what it's like to be old.

It's a jumpsuit with heavy, inflexible pads at the joints and neck. It adds, says Ford's Wes Sherwood, about 30 years to your body.

"And the idea is, how can we have our young designers and engineers feel what it's like to have some of the limitations that many in the country have," Sherwood says.

Ford learns a lot more about the needs of older drivers in its Virtual Environment Lab.

Inside the dark room, people sit down inside a special car frame with movable parts that can be adjusted to simulate any new-car design. In addition to the suit, test drivers wear special gloves and goggles.

The goggles instantly plunge the wearer into a virtual world of streets and cars and pedestrians. The gloves allow the driver to have hand movements represented in the virtual world.

On a computer, researchers can see exactly what the older driver sees and fix any problems.

General Motors is also using technology to help older drivers. The company's Human Machine Interface division is developing a windshield to help older drivers compensate for vision loss and slower reaction times. Images appear on the glass, similar to the lines drawn on a football field on TV to highlight plays.

The windshield can then draw an outline around a road sign or a pedestrian or the sides of the road in heavy fog. With infrared sensors, a small red icon of a deer could pop up just before the animal jumps in front of your car.

"It would highlight the location of the deer so you could take evasive action if you needed to," says GM's Thomas Seder.

It will be at least six years before this windshield comes to market. But other technologies are available now, like radar-assisted blind-spot detection. Of course, all this work doesn't mean we'll never have to retire the keys. But most of us may be able to keep driving more safely and for a lot longer than we do now.

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