designing cars for the elderly

a design story thanks to a unique device called the ageing suit, one car maker has come up with a fool-proof way to make their cars appeal to the elderly

designing cars for the elderly

Just how do car designers go about creating a car that can appeal to all age groups especially the elderly. One solution, pioneered by Ford, is the Ageing Suit. Worn by a younger designer as he or she is working in the studio, this simulates the restricted mobility and vision experienced by many older people.

The all-in-one outfit incorporates padding and elasticated binding to restrict and stiffen body movement in key areas, such as the wrists, knees, elbows, torso and neck. In addition, the wearer has customised gloves to constrict the fingers and goggles that simulate deteriorating eyesight.

Mike Bradley, the ergonomics specialist in Ford's design centre in Dunton, explains. "When you're young and fit enough to leap out of a car without effort, it's hard to appreciate why an older person may need to lever themselves out of the driver's seat - by pushing on the seat back and the door frame, for example. But try leaping out while you're wearing the Ageing Suit, and you really do understand the problem."

Wearing the suit and gloves, you find that putting on a seatbelt and changing gear becomes unexpectedly tricky too. Manoeuvres such as reversing the car become much more difficult with head movement restricted by the suit's head-brace and the field of vision impaired by the goggles. In addition, the gloves serve to highlight which types of control are easiest to operate when fingers are less nimble and have less tactile feedback.

Anticipating the needs and capabilities of a wide range of people was particularly important to Ford especially when designing modern vehicles like the Fiesta, Focus and Kuga, which compete in the largest segments of the car market in Europe and attract customers of all ages. Understanding the restricted mobility caused by ageing made a significant contribution to Ford's decision to make their cars slightly taller than previous models. One major benefit from this is a higher H-point - the point at which the hips swivel - which makes it easier to get in and out of the vehicle, helping to make Ford vehicles class-leaders in this area.

There's no doubt that the population as a whole is ageing. The number of drivers over 65 in Europe is expected to increase significantly as the baby-boomers reach old age. Medical research shows that physical changes between 20 and 60 years old cause joint movement and muscle strength to reduce by an average of 25 per cent. So, Ford undertook a programme of research with a large group of 50 to 75 year olds, asking them how these changes affected their driving behaviour. This provided the impetus for developing the ageing suit, which was created on Ford's behalf by KE Ergonomics at Loughborough University, England.

The ageing suit has proven to be so valuable as a design tool that two additional suits were created for use in the United States and Europe.