Smarter Cars

By Chandra Orr

August 15, 2008 5 min read


Retiring baby boomers bring big changes to auto market

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

Cars that measure brain activity? Maybe in another 10 years. For now, baby boomers will have to rely on touch screen controls, automatic parallel parking and night vision.

As this older generation eases into retirement, auto manufacturers are developing new ways to make the driving experience safe and satisfying for the aging population.

"People are living longer and driving longer," said Joanne Helperin, senior features editor for, a leading automotive information Web site. "Automakers are always looking at improving vehicle compatibility to make it easier for everyone to use their cars, but as the boomers age, there's going to be an enormous need for these advances."

Emerging technology, ergonomic enhancements and some forward thinking have put Toyota and Ford at the forefront of senior-friendly design -- but these aren't your grandma's cars.

"Manufacturers don't want their cars to be known as cars for older people, but certainly there are some models that lend themselves well to the aging driver," Helperin said. "Car companies are following the money. They are, of course, interested in safety, comfort and convenience, but boomers represent a huge market and they have more disposable income."

Toyota tops the list

When it comes to senior-friendly design, Toyota is ahead of the curve. Their efforts earned the automaker five spots on's list of the top 10 vehicles for seniors for 2007, with Avalon, Prius, Sienna and Camry all making the list.

The models incorporate revolutionary 360 degree handles that let drivers open doors using only major arm muscles, as opposed to traditional paddle-style handles that require the use of arthritis-prone wrist and finger muscles.

Additionally, many models incorporate intuitive touch-screen controls, larger type fonts in the instrument panels for easy reading and vacuum fluorescent technology, which creates brighter instrument panel displays than conventional liquid crystal technology.

The Camry features an assist plate, an ergonomic innovation to aid aging drivers in entering and exiting the vehicle safely. Located on the door side of the driver seat, this secure palm rest offers extra leverage when climbing in and out of the vehicle.

The Lexus LS made the list as well, thanks to features like self-parking technology that lets the vehicle pull into parallel parking spaces with little help from the driver.

Toyota has also teamed up with the inventor of Nintendo's "Brain Age" series, Professor Ryuta Kawashima of Japan's Tohoku University, to develop smart cars that respond to changes in a driver's brain activity, reflexes and alertness -- but don't expect to see the results anytime soon. Cars that measure acuity and help drivers regain their concentration won't hit dealerships until 2020.

Ford focuses on safety

Meanwhile, researchers at Ford are getting a first-hand look at what it's like for aging drivers behind the wheel.

Their "Third Age Suit" combines extra material, straps and contraptions to limit sight, hearing and movement, effectively simulating the aging driver's experience on the road.

Insights from the research are showing up in new models like the 2008 Taurus X, which features strap-shaped door handles, doors than open wider than average and seats that sit three to four inches higher than comparable models for easier entry into the vehicle.

Across the board, luxury add-ons like keyless ignition, power adjustable seats with memory, voice-activated navigation systems and night vision benefit older drivers as much, if not more, than the younger crowd.

"A lot of the things we think of as just general advances in technology are incredibly boomer friendly, particularly advances in parking and accident avoidance," Helperin said, citing rear parking sensors, backup cameras and lane departure warning systems. "Any new safety technology is going to benefit the older driver."

Like it? Share it!

  • 0