Ford

Newly minted car designers don’t start out with an understanding of the needs of senior drivers or others with limited mobility or declining vision. To help sensitize them, Ford makes its engineers and designers wear its Third Age Suit, which duplicates some of the limited flexibility, hearing, motion, vision, and even sense of touch that seniors can experience.

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“The Third Age Suit places our engineers directly in the shoes of older drivers, helping them understand their circumstances and anticipate their needs,” says Katie Allanson, a human factors engineer in Ford’s Interactions and Ergonomics group.

Some of the details that Ford considers include seat-belt operation, ease of opening doors, and even the space between the infotainment buttons so that drivers can avoid hitting two at once.

Advanced safety features are always a balancing act, no matter which driver the manufacturer has in mind. For instance, engineers struggle with how to create sound or sight warnings that do the job but won’t annoy or overwhelm the driver.

Subaru

Subaru’s approach to designing cars with seniors in mind is to focus on access, controls, and visibility, and to keep its cars free of anything that’s confusing or complicated, says Todd Hill, a product manager. “We like to be different from the competition for good reasons,” he says. “There’s no point being different just to be different. It has to add value.”

Accessibility is a key focus: for example, making sure doors open wide, and eliminating low or sloping rooflines so that no one has to duck to get into a car. Subaru makes sure gauges and touch screens are large and visually clean, with easily readable fonts. Gauges are also placed high on the dashboard to help keep a driver’s eyes on the road.

Toyota

Known for reliability and value, Toyota relies heavily on research, partnering with institutions like the University of Michigan and Wayne State University to explore issues, including how to reduce injuries to seniors in a crash. An innovation that resulted from its collaboration with Wayne State was a computer-simulated model that revealed how a 70-year-old female’s bones might break in a crash. The modeling, meant to educate designers about gender’s role in aging, hasn’t resulted in new products yet. But Toyota’s collaboration with a senior center in Michigan has. It led to changes in the seat design in some models to make it easier for seniors to maneuver out of their car.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the July 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.