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The rotary shifter in the Chrysler 200 is an example of a design change that reduces the effort necessary to do common vehicular tasks.

Addressing the needs of an aging population

With more than 75 million Baby Boomers (those aged 50-68) in the U.S., the automotive industry is now faced with the necessity to design products to meet the unique needs of this substantial group. Marilyn Vala (SAE International Member, 1997), HMI Lead, LC/LA/LD/LX Program, Chrysler, and organizer of the “Mobility Issues for an Aging Population” technical session at SAE 2014 World Congress, has been researching this issue for the past 15 years and has a comprehensive understanding of the landscape and its challenges. She cites research that shows that 52% of the vehicles sold in 2012 were to people older than 55 and that a 65-year-old is four times more likely to buy a new car than a 25-year-old. Automotive Engineering Assistant Editor Matthew Monaghan recently spoke with Vala to gain her insight on the subject and learn how automakers are responding.

What are some of the issues associated with this group that automakers are going to have to address?

People are aging a little bit differently; they’re living longer, living healthier, and they want to continue with their mobility. There’s a unique set of issues that goes along with this aging. They’re having trouble seeing things clearly at night, and glare can be a problem. It’s harder to notice horns, sirens, or even noises from your own car. Reaction times are slower and your joints are stiff so your muscles start to weaken, which makes it harder to move quickly. Also, your attention span begins to shorten and it might be harder to do two things at one time. There’s also increased health issues such as Parkinson’s, stroke, and arthritis, which can interfere with your driving ability. Then there’s also increased use of medication to help all these issues, and medications can have side effects such as drowsiness, lightheadedness, or reduced alertness.

What are some of the ways in which automakers can respond?

For example, on the new Chrysler 200 we have a rotary shifter that makes it easier for an older person. On our rotary shifter, it’s easier for people to hold and turn, they don’t have to grasp it, and it takes less effort to move it because now you’re not pushing it forward and back, you’re just turning it slightly, so it makes it a lot easier for a person who might have some joint stiffness or arthritis to be able to use.

You recently worked with college students to develop concepts to improve the driving experience for older adults. What was that experience like?

We worked with Design for America because I think it’s very important to get the universities on board, and particularly the young people to get their insight into this whole issue. We had five colleges—Stanford, Northwestern, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Virginia Tech, and Vanderbilt—and each school was given a challenge to design a feature primarily dealing with a cognitive issue that goes along with aging. It was really great. Part of the task was they had to go out and work with the older population to collect their data in order to design their projects, and it was great to hear how much they learned from dealing with the older population.

What made this a subject you developed such an interest in?

With the increase in population getting older, I see that there is a very important [need]. It’s also as I’m getting older, I’m more sensitive to it. I know from my experience in the area of universal design, if we design products and features in automotive for this group, they will be usable by all groups. It just makes it easier for everybody.

What was the process like organizing a session on this topic for World Congress?

I was very pleased to get AAA’s Jake Nelson as my keynote speaker. AAA has been very positive about wanting to support this. The way I designed the session is that I have somebody talking about the physical changes that occur in aging and how to accommodate for that. I have somebody talking about advanced interfaces and how do we accommodate for older adults. And then a good portion of the population lives in urban areas and cities, so how do we accommodate and improve mobility for the aging in cities. I have somebody from the University of Michigan talking about accommodating people in mass transit. Finally I have Sami Nerenberg from Design For America speaking about how do we get the universities and the young people involved in coming up with some of these solutions.

Note: The “Mobility Issues for an Aging Population” technical session will be held April 8 at the SAE 2014 World Congress at 1 p.m. in Room 116 B, Cobo Center, Detroit.

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