How Automakers Cater to Older Drivers

Drivers are getting older — but thanks to new technologies and designs, cars are getting safer.

Older woman behind the wheel of a carAdobe Stock

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By the year 2030, every member of the baby boomer generation will be over the age of 65. A look at current vehicle registrations shows the increasing average age of motorists, with 42% of all new vehicle registrations belonging to people aged 55 years and older.

With around 71 million baby boomers in the U.S., it's no surprise that car companies have spent the past decade preparing for an influx of older drivers buying their cars, trucks, and SUVs. Some of these efforts revolve around safety, as drivers over the age of 70 have a higher risk of death in a car accident compared with those in middle age; older drivers are also more likely to have medical conditions that can impact reflexes, vision, and cognitive abilities behind the wheel. Additionally, there are concerns about accessibility regarding touchscreen technologies, the ability of older drivers to get in and out of an automobile's cabin, and loading gear into the hatch or trunk.

The good news is automotive technology and design are evolving alongside the population. Here's how the need to keep older drivers safe on public roads has affected the way modern vehicles are conceived, engineered, and built.

Automakers Keep Adding Safety Features for Older Drivers

Safety is top of mind for car companies intent on protecting passengers, including older drivers, involved in automobile crashes, as is helping prevent those collisions. Much of this technological development is driven by luxury car companies seeking a competitive edge and by Japanese automakers facing a more pronounced wave of elderly drivers.

Over the past decade or so, there's been more interest from carmakers in active safety systems, which can alert drivers to potentially dangerous situations. These systems include blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assistance, automatic emergency braking, and backup cameras — all technologies that can help older drivers avoid road accidents.

Aging Bodies Require New Ergonomic Thinking

Older drivers are also physically less resistant to the forces that cause injury during a car accident. This issue has led to the development of crash-test models that reflect an older population, helping automakers design airbags and safety cages that could better protect older citizens in severe accidents.

Technology is helping put automotive engineers in the shoes of older drivers outside the context of a crash as well. At Ford, engineers can try on a "Third Age" suit, which puts their ability to move, hear, and see at the same level as an average senior citizen. The insight imparted by this experience in an automotive setting has led the company to change the design of its seat belts, doors, and dashboard buttons to make them easier to operate for older drivers. General Motors has even appointed a chief engineer for accessibility whose sole job is to improve the ability of customers — regardless of their age — to use its vehicles.

Features designed for older drivers abound across many car brands and models. Closer attention is being paid to the step-in heights of vehicles, for example. Seats that easily slide forward and backward make it easier for drivers to get in and out of a car. In addition, wider and taller entry points are now on the menu.

Infotainment systems are gradually becoming more accessible for older drivers to use. Larger touchscreens have become standard in a broader range of vehicles (nearly 25% are now larger than 11 inches wide), with correspondingly larger screen icons that are easier to recognize and touch. On top of that, the maturation of voice controls means it's possible to skip button presses entirely in many models and instead speak commands to control heating and cooling, music and radio, and other vehicle settings.

Many of these new features are available in non-luxury vehicles. These include automotive segments such as minivans and SUVs, which can be prized by older drivers for their practicality when chauffeuring grandchildren.

Tech Fixes for Older Drivers

At the cutting edge of safety features intended to appeal to older citizens are technologies that simplify the driving experience.

Some automakers are working on tech that expands connected car capabilities to include health monitoring for drivers through vehicle-integrated wearable devices. These systems are meant to flag unusual behavior that could indicate the driver has suffered from a health problem while behind the wheel. The move to enhance keyless entry includes hands-free tailgates operated by motion sensors and keyless ignition and entry that uses facial recognition to open a door and start the vehicle. While this kind of advancement might seem gimmicky, elderly drivers facing mobility restrictions such as arthritic hands could appreciate the benefit of avoiding small, hard-to-grip fobs.

Can Older Drivers Afford the Latest Automotive Safety Tech?

One of the biggest challenges facing an aging population on the road is that many drivers operate older vehicles. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety highlighted the fact that older drivers often own and operate vehicles with out-of-date safety tech. This extends to the point where it is statistically impacting older drivers' survival in an accident.

Compounding the issue is the question of affordability. With the average new vehicle costing close to $50,000, access to the latest safety technology can be out of reach financially for older people on a fixed income. The IIHS recommends buyers aim for a late-model used car or lease (rather than buy) a new one to bridge this price gap. Even base-model automobiles these days are equipped with advanced safety features as standard equipment, which helps make the latest automotive safety technology more accessible to a broader range of buyers.

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Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting is a writer and podcast host who contributes to a number of newspapers, automotive magazines, and online publications. More than a decade into his career, he enjoys keeping the shiny side up during track days and always has one too many classic vehicle projects partially disassembled in his garage at any given time. Remember, if it's not leaking, it's probably empty.