Senior drivers confront new car technology

Mary Chapman
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — Before settling on a new 2014 Ford Edge SE, Cynthia Manson resisted sales pressure to move up to a trim level that had, along with a bigger price tag, more onboard technology and available options.

The lower-grade SE had suited her fine. Although the newly retired Manson could afford a more loaded vehicle, all she required was a CD player for road-trip music and her beloved audio books, plus a navigation system. And, remote start would come in handy on chilly Park Forest mornings. At her age, she said, simplicity is best.

“I think when you have too much stuff, like automatic braking and lane departure warning and all that, you begin to rely on it too much, and you lose your focus,” said Manson, 70, a former bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority.

It’s hard to avoid too much technology. New vehicles feature an ever-growing array of gizmos, a lot of which are standard.

“The velocity of technological change is only going to continue and will accelerate,” said Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The proliferation of technology is confusing to anyone, not just seniors, which is why the National Safety Council recently launched the “My Car Does What?” website, which simplifies advanced safety features into an interactive guide. But seniors might stand to benefit the most from using such technology.

Organizations such as AAA and AARP offer ways to help older drivers understand technology related to safety, ergonomics and comfort.

For example, AAA has a list of recommendations including: active safety systems, which use cameras and sensors to alert drivers of looming danger; 360-degree camera systems, which are particularly good for parking; adaptive headlights, which swivel in the direction the steering wheel is turned; automatic crash notifications; automatic high beams; blind-spot warning; drowsy-driver alert systems; keyless entry; adjustable steering wheels and pedals; power seats; and motorized trunk lids.

While such technology often is considered a convenience by younger drivers, it can help senior drivers remain safe and comfortable. According to AAA, nearly 90 percent of motorists 65 and older have health issues that may affect driver safety. The number of licensed drivers ages 65 to 69 rose more than 15 percent from 1983 to 2014; for the 70-and-older set, it rose 43.6 percent, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

The Institute for Highway Safety projects that by 2030, the number of drivers who are at least 70 will climb from 30.1 million to 53.7 million.

Car manufacturers are keenly aware of this burgeoning demographic. General Motors, for example, recruits individuals 60 and older to test its infotainment systems. Across town, Ford Motor uses a so-called “Third Age” suit to help engineers and designers understand how physical limitations can affect driving. The Collaborative Safety Research Center at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., meanwhile, has a variety of projects related to older drivers, partnering with universities and other institutions.

It’s difficult to measure how much demand is driving the onslaught of available technology, experts said. The list of top-selling models last year among drivers 65 and older by percentage share of registrations, without regard to trim levels, included the Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac XTS, Lincoln MKS, Lexus LS and Lincoln MKT, respectively, according to Edmunds.com.

“There’s no safety feature specific for older drivers, but there’s no demographic that that doesn’t help,” said Carroll Lachnit, a consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. “You may be a 45-year-old with early onset arthritis. So if you have trouble turning your head, blind-spot warning is helpful. So it’s almost as though, what’s the issue for the individual driver?”

But too much technology can overwhelm drivers.

That’s partly why manufacturers such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz now have teams who can explain to car buyers how to use new-car features.

For her part, for instance, a frustrated Manson returned to her dealer after failing to figure out her vehicle’s Bluetooth system. “I finally went and told the guy, show me how to use this, and he did. It was important for me to learn because I wanted to be able to be hands-free.”

Coughlin warned against generalizations about older drivers, saying studies show a wide range of ability within that group. “Younger drivers who rely only on instruments are problematic too,” he said. “I’ve found that people who have driven for a while have learned how to drive and learned how to drive well.”

He said future vehicles are expected to feature an ageless, more personalized interface. For example, instead of audible warnings, drivers with impaired hearing may choose color signals or vibration instead. “Apple’s iPad is a very sophisticated piece of technology, but profoundly ageless as well,” he explained. “The future will deliver an experience that’s about you.”