Electronicdesign 29821 Elderlyddriver

What an Aging Population Means for Future Car Design

Nov. 22, 2019
The future of car design doesn’t revolve around millennials—it’s focused more on Baby Boomers.

While millennials now represent the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, there’s one area where baby boomers still reign supreme: the future of the auto industry. Boomers grew up in a culture centered on cars and driving, from cruising on Saturday nights to drive-in movies to hot-rod racing. Today, the generation born between 1946 and 1964 remains the largest demographic of car buyers; one in three boomers plans to buy a car in the next year. 

But while boomers at one time looked for cars with sleek fins or white-wall tires, their desires have matured. Once they became parents, minivans that fit an entire soccer team came into vogue. And once they hit middle age, SUVs and crossovers became more desirable.

"They're in their 70s now and are aging quite differently," Sheryl Connelly, a futurist for Ford Motor Co., told the Chicago Tribune. “They are very active, though retiring, and shifting to second careers and traveling. They are also simplifying, but want what they want in a different way."

The auto industry is all too aware of these new wants, and it’s changing along with boomers. A spate of new safety and communication features, powered by the Internet of Things, is keeping pace to meet the needs of this aging population.

The Latest Vehicle Technology is a Breeze

Today’s boomers look for driving technology that’s convenient and easy to use. Current and next-generation car features bridge any knowledge gap by asking less of the driver. For example, SUVs like Toyota’s 2018 C-HR now include forward-sensing radar technology and a smart camera to help detect the speed and distance of other vehicles on the road. Pre-collision systems with pedestrian detection scan the road ahead for another vehicle or a pedestrian.

These sensory features are especially important given that 80% of people in their 70s have arthritis and inflammation, decreasing their reaction times and putting them at greater risk for accidents. Many of these features come standard in new cars, including:

  • Around-view cameras
  • Rear cross-path detection
  • Parking sensors
  • Blind-spot warnings
  • Collision alert systems
  • Crash-mitigation braking

In the near future, augmented reality and V2X technology, such as vehicles that communicate with each other and sensors in stoplights and signs, will enable cars to require even less interaction from drivers themselves. As boomers age and become less physically capable, the car will fill in the gaps in situations where they could be a danger to themselves and others on the road. If a driver doesn’t brake quickly enough or falls asleep behind the wheel, the car will screech to a halt.

While these technologies may sound counter to the features that tech-savvy younger generations desire, they’re actually on the same page. Millennials and members of Gen Z are looking for greater connectivity—and that’s exactly what’s provided by the IoT.

Autonomous Vehicles are Coming Soon

While boomers will never pilot the Jetsons’ aerocar, self-driving cars will be a reality within many of their lifetimes. It’ll be another five to 10 years before fully autonomous vehicles hit the market, but autonomy is growing as we speak, and significant features like environmental awareness will be standardized in the next three to five years.

As vehicles become easier to drive—or not drive—concerns still exist around seniors driving past an appropriate age. These worries are valid, but in the long run, full autonomy will overcome some human error and increase overall driver safety. Some of the OEM provided features of full autonomy include:

  • Vehicle-to-vehicle communications, allowing nearby vehicles to send information about hazards, adverse road conditions, or other impediments to the driverless vehicle.
  • Vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, providing awareness of streetlights changing, a road that’s closed, detours, etc. to guide the autonomous vehicle around obstacles.
  • Vehicle-to-pedestrian technology, which provides awareness of pedestrians nearby or headed toward the self-driving vehicle to allow for evasive action or avoidance of contact with pedestrians that may be walking, riding bikes, or motorcycles.

It should be clear by now that automakers are looking to offload critical, time-sensitive decision-making from the passengers of autonomous vehicles through a complex set of sensors and communication with everything around the vehicle. This (V2X) technology should go a long way to offset some of the concerns about older drivers’ abilities to respond quickly to challenging driving environments as they will no longer be required to handle most of these decisions.

The biggest hurdle to autonomous driving among seniors may be the drivers themselves. Just 15% of adults ages 55 to 64 and 11% of those age 65 to 74 said they were comfortable with full-self driving, compared to 33% of those age 24 to 34. Senior drivers who had driven vehicles with driver-assistance technology like backup cameras and collision detection were more likely to be comfortable with autonomous vehicles. Manufacturers will need to build on that familiarity and demonstrate their vehicles can be trusted to win boomers over.

Connected Cars and 5G Create the Internet of Vehicles

The highway of the future will be powered by the information superhighway. Next-generation 5G wireless service stands to give birth to the Internet of Things, on wheels. The Internet of Vehicles (IoV) will allow vehicles to communicate with their drivers, with other vehicles, with traffic signals, and city infrastructure.

Much of the technology that powers IoV-connected cities is still in the testing phase, but the wheels are rolling. Earlier this year, Columbus, Ohio, launched the first of nine projects—a self-driving shuttle—included in its smart city initiative, “Smart Columbus.” The $50 million effort also includes a Connected Vehicle Environment project that incorporates smart traveler apps, automated vehicles, connected vehicles and smart sensors into the city’s transit network. The CVE project leverages a high-speed network backbone that will connect the city’s traffic signals and enable coordination throughout the system.

Columbus’ IoV connectivity spells increased safety and efficiency for everyone, including boomer drivers. If a car that’s two vehicles ahead senses an accident, it will relay that information to your car, allowing the navigation system to reroute and putting safety systems on high alert. Auto companies are already developing 5G-powered ideas. For instance, BMW and Daimler announced they’re spending $1.1 billion to pilot a platform that will connect services like route management, booking transportation, electric car charging, parking, and ride-sharing, and will eventually pair with autonomous vehicles.

While the IoV promotes physical safety, it does raise issues around data security from multiple angles. Already, hackers are breaking into cars’ self-driving software, pointing out dangerous holes that could have serious consequences. Current laws ban self-driving vehicles without equipment like steering wheels, pedals, and mirrors, but the U.S. Department of Transportation may make revisions as technology evolves. Manufacturers themselves also will need to remain vigilant as new technology hits the market.

As with any other system that stores and uses personal data, such as utilities, IoV-connected cities will be responsible for protecting drivers’ privacy. In Columbus, officials drafted a Data Privacy Plan that puts a framework around data security, including gaining drivers’ informed consent for use of their data. It’s something cautious drivers, including boomers, will demand as IoV technology becomes commonplace.

Boomers have seen geometric growth in technology over their lifetimes, from transistors to TV to computers to mobile devices. They have largely grown up with change, and are used to it, particularly when it comes to technology. So, while their grandkids may poke fun at boomers as they adopt new driving technologies, the truth is that this generation will not only shape the future of cars—they’re ready for it. 

Mike Moran is Director of Engineering at Morey.

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