By Mark Miller
CHICAGO, Sept 17 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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."