Seniors and Cars of the Future

General Motors invited a small group of us from AARP to their Detroit research and development facility to brainstorm about the needs of seniors in the cars of the future. Now the term flux capicator never came up we did see a lot of cool stuff.* And you don't need 1.21 gigawatts to operate them!

Boomers will live longer than their parents which should make their transportation needs a top priority for legislators on all levels. Emphasis on the should. But car companies need to pay attention too. I'm happy to say the good folks at GM are doing just that.

The question is, "How do we find out what seniors will need in their cars?"

GM can't pay the bills making geriatric cars that though while useful to an older population are esthetically unimpressive. The rub is designing amenities for older drivers (or for their caregiver kids that will drive them) while being esthetically pleasing for drivers of all ages.

I gave the example of my mom who has suffered with rheumatoid arthritis for decades. On good days she can hold a coffee cup; on bad days she can barely grasp a toothbrush. When mom sits in my passenger seat, I have to buckle her seat belt because the clasp is too small for her to do it. She also wraps her right arm around the cross-chest belt because it's uncomfortable for her and strains her arthritic neck and upper back.

So, what's the fix? GM is on the right track* by changing their focus from asking> how older drivers use their cars to watching how they use them.  They have found that drivers adapt to their cars even if uncomfortable from the onset. (My mom and the seat belt, for example.) GM has set out to make the everyday items in the car more senior friendly but without running off the younger drivers. Tough gig.

Does anyone use the handle to get in and out of the car? (In my family we call it the "Oh Nelly Handle" and grab it when daddy takes a turn to fast.) The answer is not really and GM knows this.

Would you buy a car that has easier entry-exit points, something clearly catering to an older demographic, if you were in your 20s or 30s (when aging parents aren't necessarily a reality to you) for fear of being mocked for having a "Geezer Mobile?"  Likely no.

Younger drivers want something sporty and practical that will outlast the car payment. Guess what, so do the 50+!

Simply by observing how people in their 60s, 70s, 80s even 90s get in and out of cars is invaluable market research. Are the door handles hard to use? How do passengers/drivers reach to close the door? Is the seat belt burdensome? What about storage for walkers, wheelchairs, etc. or strollers, surfboards, etc.? Is using the trunk easy? And, really, what is the purpose of that handle?

We had a strong exchange of ideas and will likely do it again in the near future. So now I ask you: What do you want to see in your cars as you age? I suggest you write GM and let them know.

*= Privacy agreements prevent me from sharing the prototypes we saw.

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