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Keeping Boomers Behind the Wheel

When Ford Motor (F) engineers want to test-drive a car to judge how easy it is to handle, they step into the virtual sunset of their lives. How? By donning a modified space suit that mimics the effects of human aging. The suit's joints are stiffened to simulate joint deterioration and muscle weakening, something that happens in most elderly drivers. A heavy paunch adorns the suit's midsection. Test drivers wear goggles that are cracked and yellowed to reduce visual acuity and increase sensitivity to glare. And they put on thick surgical gloves, reducing tactile sensation.

Ford calls this contraption the Third Age Suit, which has become an integral part of the carmaker's design process. But the engineers might as well have called it the baby boomer suit. That's because the first of the boomers will hit retirement age in five years, and auto makers are working on big technology changes to make driving easier and safer for the silver set.

FOLLOWING THE MONEY. This big push to keep this wealthy and powerful demographic group comfy behind the wheel could dramatically improve safety and forever alter the way that people interact with their cars. For example, steering controls could gently nudge a driver around a sharp curve. Climate systems will ask in a pleasant voice whether you want to turn on the air conditioner. All of this will be powered by a new array of digital systems, computer chips, and software designed to make driving easier, safer, and more foolproof. "The carmakers are on the verge of making huge changes," says Brett Smith, the Director of Product & Technology Forecasting at the independent Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Ford and other auto manufacturers are just following the market -- and the money. According to the U.S. Health & Human Services Dept., in 2002 America had 35.6 million people 65 years of age and older. That number will double to 71.5 million by 2030 when the last of the living 76 million boomers born in the decade after World War II hit official retirement age.

In other parts of the world, the same demographic shift is playing out at an even more rapid clip. In Japan, those 65 and older will account for 25% of the population by 2015. A similar shift is under way in most of Western Europe and developed Asia.

SENIOR SAFETY. For the most part, this generation expects to continue driving and buying new cars for many more years. But their bodies may undermine their ability to put the pedal to the metal. Their vision will become cloudier. Their ability to make quick decisions will decline. And their responses will be more lethargic.

That's why seniors are 17 times more likely to die in a car crash than those between the ages of 25 and 64, according to the nonprofit AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. And people 65 and older are involved in more crashes per mile driven than any other age group, save teenagers. It's no surprise then that for the first time, safety has become a primary factor in buying a car for older shoppers, according to tech consultancy Global Insights.

And the timing couldn't be better. The car industry is now in the midst of a big shift from making basic vehicles with a standard radio and stereo to building veritable electronics stores on wheels. DVD players, video screens, GPS navigation systems, and dizzying arrays of climate-control options, have all conspired, particularly in luxury models, to make cars more enticing and more complex. Some top models from BMW, for example, boast over 700 distinct functions that a driver can control.

EARLY-WARNING SYSTEMS. With older drivers generally being more affluent and more willing to spend for nifty features, carmakers are understandably stepping up efforts to make their driving experience easier and safer. General Motors (GM) started putting infrared sensors into some Cadillac Deville models in 1999 to provide drivers with "night vision," a capability that can cut down on evening pedestrian fatalities. While GM's system hasn't met with great consumer acceptance so far, Honda (HMC) will offer a next-generation version in certain Japanese models this fall.

Most auto makers are also trying to make cars more crash-proof by building in various sensing systems that can alert drivers to sudden lane changes or obstacles ahead. They can even prime a car's air bags and seat belts for an imminent collision.

With all the potentially befuddling new options, designers are working on new tricks that will keep the dashboard from looking like a Space Shuttle cockpit. These include much improved display systems that are easier on the eyes, tiny computerized systems that create resistance to the touch that can make virtual gauges feel like real buttons or dials, and voice-recognition systems that can make a driver's wish the on-board computer's command (see BW Online, 9/1/04, "Intelligent Conversation -- with Your Car").

DOWNLOADABLE IMPROVEMENTS. Powering all of these changes is a new wave of innovations in software that in the future will make cars far more reprogrammable and upgradable than ever before. Sun Microsystems (SUNW), Siemens (SI), and other tech companies are developing new types of software to accommodate what could be a regular upgrade cycle for vehicles. Someday soon, a car owner might need to plug a cable into his vehicle to download the latest and greatest air-bag deployment software or voice-recognition improvements.

Add it all together, and the generation that brought America the sexual revolution could well bring the world the next automotive revolution and usher in an era of geekier but safer cars. By Alex Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online

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