by: Richard C. Moakes, CEng
Population statistics show that we are living on average 15 years longer, and in response, the automotive industry is discovering aging drivers may have different technology needs from their younger counterparts. Cars have become more comfortable, more efficient, and more technologically advanced. These days, even the most tech savvy drivers might be tempted to open the manual before attempting to push the key into the ignition, because it probably is not the ignition at all! Consider mobile phones. For certain older people, the mobile phone is not an easy technology to use. The rapid rate of technological change in mobile phones is now happening in vehicle design, and we see this in displays, dashboards, and instruments. Younger drivers are tech savvy, but what about the older population sharing the roadway?
At any age, a driver needs to be attentive to the roadway. Studies show that in the U.S., the number of drivers aged over 70 will triple in the next 20 years. These drivers need to maintain their ability to concentrate amid the barrage of visual and audio inputs. There is research being performed to study the faculties: the difference in perception and reaction that older drivers have and their ability to handle all the extra information in the driving environment. This information is from inside the cabin of the car and from street fixtures, which are often distracting with copious amounts of instruction. There are also advertising signs, sometimes with bright changing messages. Some aging drivers will have more difficulty accommodating this type of information.
The car manufacturers cannot afford to segment vehicle designs using age profiling. If you consider pick-up trucks and SUVs as an example, they are popular with both the young and the old for different reasons. The young driver wants a different package. They are happy with a pick-up truck or SUV but want it to act and feel different inside. That can be anything from the audio system to dash displays and information they can get from the vehicle. An older driver is likely to be interested to know how economically they are driving, while the younger driver would be more interested in an infotainment system that would tell them where the nearest Starbucks is or the quickest route to the gym in the evening. For car manufacturers, the challenge is finding ways to extend the driving life of the aging population as well as attracting fresh young drivers as they become old enough to drive.
Recently, BMW has performed a major brand face lift with its models to appeal to the younger crowd. This has consisted of more aggressive styling for the body work and large in-your-face front grills. At the same time, they have maintained familiar controls and features inside the car to appeal to the older driver who does not want to have to relearn how to operate the vehicle. The key is not to overload the older driver with a multitude of distracting gadgets and, instead, to treat extra automotive features as a support system rather than technology for technologies sake or for gimmicks. Simply stated, the technology should not distract the driver. Sensors are key technology as an aide for the mature market, with crash mitigation systems detecting when the vehicle may be in danger of collision and drowsy driver alerts waking a driver when the internal system detects they are inattentive. Although the industry is still some way from the mainstream integration of autonomous vehicles, cars are starting to become the eyes and ears of their driver. Smart headlights reduce glare and improve night vision, while reverse monitoring systems warn drivers of objects to the rear of the vehicle to help them judge distances. Blind spot warning systems warn drivers of objects out of their sight. Assisted parking systems take over the legwork of parking by completely enabling vehicles to park on their own, or accurately indicating distances to objects. Improved stability and lane departure warning systems monitor and warn drivers if they deviate from the lane and stability controls help to automatically bring the vehicle back into the intended lane of travel if a driver underestimates a curve in the road, gradient, or the weather conditions. All of these current systems in cars are the industry’s way of validating automatic systems while the human driver is still in control of the car. However, expect to see these systems acting as the backbone of the future autonomous vehicle design – the car design for all ages.
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