Nissan, Toyota Focus on Graying Drivers

Faced with slumping sales at home, Japan's carmakers are testing new technologies to help the elderly stay safely on the roads
Last year, Toyota Motor approached Ryuta Kawashima, a professor at Tohoku University, who chairs a "Mobility and Smart Aging" study group at the university, to help develop a car of the future. JUNKO KIMURA/GETTY IMAGES

In Japan, about 20% of the population is over 65, compared to 12.5% in the U.S. So it's unsurprising that the government and companies are doing more to cater to the needs of older customers. Yet when it comes to driving, it's hard to avoid the mixed signals. Companies are keen to keep seniors behind the wheel. Although few admit to targeting older customers with specific models, many new technologies or design trends are being developed with older drivers in mind.

And it's not just because the Japanese elderly population is growing in numbers. Last year Japan's auto sales reached 25-year lows. A lack of interest in car buying among younger drivers (BusinessWeek, 7/23/07) is one of the reasons for the slump. Japan's graying population of baby boomers, with more time to drive and money to spend after receiving substantial retirement packages, is a much easier sell.

That means giving them cars that meet their needs. Nissan (NSANY) has its engineers donning special suits which mimic the physical effects of aging. The suits simulate poor balance through a raised front-toe design, use goggles that imitate failing eyesight and color blindness, and have special casts that mimic arthritic pain by making it more difficult to raise arms and legs. They also feature a 2-in.-thick waist-belt that duplicates middle-age spread. This, Nissan says, makes it harder to enter or exit a car and cramps an engineer's movement behind the steering wheel in poorly designed seating.

Avoiding Acceleration Issues

That might seem extreme, but Nissan points out that while older drivers occupy an increasing share of the auto market, its engineers, often in their 20s or 30s, need to know what it's feels like to be older. "It's not always practical to recruit older motorists for product research," says Nissan design engineer Etsuhiro Watanabe. "These special suits allow engineers and designers to come up with solutions that make car use a safer and more positive experience."

Toyota (TM) is taking steps that are even more ingenious. Last year it approached Ryuta Kawashima, a professor at Tohoku University, who chairs a "mobility and smart aging" study group at the university, to help develop a car of the future. One idea is for the car to recognize how the driver normally drives, such as the way he or she accelerates or holds the steering wheel. If the approach to driving changes significantly, for instance, accelerating for no obvious reason, the car could automatically slow.

Kawashima, best known internationally for being featured in Nintendo's (NTDOY) Brain Age video games (BusinessWeek, 3/8/07), says he would like to develop a system that monitors drivers' brain patterns and, if problems are detected, notifies the driver or slows the car. "We're not going to do what you can easily imagine," he says.

A Special Sticker for Seniors

While new technology like Kawashima's or other innovations (such as in-car cameras that monitor consciousness to ensure the driver is awake at the wheel) benefit all drivers, safety measures are especially important for older drivers. Even though the number of car accidents in Japan in total is in decline, the number involving people over the age of 70 is rising. "We don't think aging is bad, but there are ways to improve the ways in which people age," adds Kawashima. "We think we can come up with some very interesting results within 10 years."

Yet not everyone seems as keen on elderly drivers as the carmakers. Because of concern over rising accident numbers, since 2002 seniors over the age of 70 have been encouraged, but not compelled, to display a special symbol on the hood of their vehicles that informs other drivers of their senior status. Resembling an autumnal maple leaf, the orange and yellow symbols are known colloquially as "ochiba marks." Ochiba is Japanese for fallen leaves.

If that's not humiliating enough, on Apr. 1 the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Force began persuading business to encourage the over-70s to quit the roads by offering them bribes to hand in their keys. Among the incentives: restaurant discounts, free home deliveries, and reduced interest rates at a Tokyo bank in return for quitting driving. The scheme is expected to go nationwide from June. At least insurers are on side of the elderly. Despite a rising accident rate, older drivers aren't yet penalized with higher premiums simply because of their age.

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