COLUMN-New technology helps older drivers keep the keys longer

Tue Sep 17, 2013 12:01am EDT

By Mark Miller

CHICAGO, Sept 17 (Reuters) - When automakers add safety technology to their cars, they don't go out of their way to advertise the new features to older drivers - that would be self-defeating.

"The car remains a symbol of youthfulness, independence and freedom," says Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which studies and develops a wide range of age-related technology. "If I sell a car pitched as an old man's car, I can guarantee a younger man or woman won't buy it - and neither will the older man."

But that doesn't mean older drivers don't care about safety. It turns out that older drivers want technologies that help them change lanes safely and park more easily. That was the finding of a survey of drivers over age 50 that MIT and The Hartford insurance company will release on Tuesday.

The top five preferred technologies among older drivers: blind spot warning systems, crash warning systems, emergency response assistance systems, drowsy driver alerts and reverse monitoring that warn of objects behind the car.

"Most people are aware of the changes that occur as they age, and the adjustments they have to make," says Jodi Olshevski, chief gerontologist and executive director of The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence. "So blind spot technology reflects the desire for a technology that can help with issues related to flexibility and range of motion."

Automotive technology that helps keep older drivers safe will gain importance in the years ahead. The nation's aging demographics are reflected in the car-buying population - the most likely car buyer was between 55 and 64 years of age in 2011, up from 35 to 44 in 2007, according to a recent report by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. And with most baby boomers saying they plan to age in place - staying right where they are as they grow older - that means there will be a surge in older drivers on the roads, especially in suburban and rural areas, where public transportation options are limited.

Coughlin says safety system developments reflect a convergence of aerospace and automotive technology. "The automotive industry used to be a mechanical engineering business, but today a car is a computer on wheels with far more software then levers and belts."

The average timespan for research and development is three to five years, he adds, so the pace of change is slow - and many of the new features crop up first in expensive luxury vehicles before they reach the mass market. Indeed, only one-third of the mature drivers surveyed by MIT/Hartford reported that they had any of the top new technologies in their current cars. But Coughlin is confident many will be standard features before long. "The industry sees these technologies as a way to improve experience and safety, but also a way of differentiating themselves."

Coughlin worries that the industry isn't doing enough to educate drivers about new safety technology as it rolls out. "Buying a car today isn't much different than when your grandparents bought one. There's a lot of fanfare about the new car smell and how to use the air conditioning and the windows - then you get the keys and you're on your own. We're going to see a re-training of the salesforce so that they can train buyers on this."

AARP offers "Smart Driver" classes to motorists over 50 in every state, and is introducing an online drivers' resource this fall with interactive tools and state-specific driving information ().

Driver safety also can present a highly emotional challenge for older drivers - and their family members - who worry about when it's time to give up the car keys altogether. For these drivers, Olshevski recommends a driving evaluation by an occupational therapist, who can review their medical and driving history, check their vision and assess cognitive ability and motor function.

The American Occupational Therapists Association publishes a list of qualified occupational therapists on its website, (). AARP also has a program called "We Need to Talk" that provides online information and in-person seminars to help families having the difficult conversations around handing over the keys.

Then again, giving up the keys could become an issue of the past if current sci-fi visions of the future come true. MIT, Google and other research centers are developing robotic, autonomous vehicles that drive themselves, and while that may sound like a far distance from reality, Ford Motor Co and Volvo both already have models that detect when a car drifts out of its lane.

"The trend is toward technology that gets people out from behind the wheel," Coughlin says. "We'll see more and more control and judgment by the vehicle itself."