Intelligent Machines

Suiting Up for the Golden Age 500

Ford’s engineers try feeling old–to design a better car

For people of a certain age, it’s obvious that today’s automobiles are designed for a young and agile customer; even climbing in and out of a car can be a chore.

That isn’t necessarily good marketing in a country whose Boomer population is rapidly aging. So, Ford Motor, for one, is encouraging its designers to think about older customers. But that’s a difficult assignment when many of the designers are in their 30s. To give them a different perspective, Ford has outfitted some of their design team with a special “age suit,” to simulate stiff joints and declining vision. The automaker will show off the results in its new Focus, a compact car that goes on sale in the United States this fall.

The 7-pound age suit looks like a cross between a karate outfit and beekeeper’s garb. Braces that strap on with Velcro restrict the motion of every joint, from ankles to neck, by about 25 percent, says Fred Lupton, a 32-year-old Ford ergonomics engineer. A pair of foggy goggles, designed to simulate cataracts and the yellowing of the lens, completes the gear.

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Just getting into the suit puts the designer in the right mood, says Lupton.”It takes about five minutes to suit up. You feel very stiff.” The last piece to go on is the neck brace, but “once you have your elbows and wrists strapped in, you can’t get it on yourself.”

The cumbersome suit spurred the designers to make Focus easier to get in and out of. Ease of entry is facilitated by the high top of the door. The seat is also higher relative to both the ground and the car’s floor than those in other compact cars, so that the driver can sit down instead of plopping down.

Besides the joint restrictors, the age suit includes latex gloves to dull the sense of touch. As a result, designers realized the Focus needed large, easy-to-feel control buttons. Trunk release latches, normally located on the floor next to the front seat, are next to the speedometer, reducing the need to bend.

Ford’s efforts have drawn kudos from some safety researchers.Matthew Rizzo, a professor of neurology at the University of Iowa’s College of Medicine, studies automobile accidents involving people with advanced age and cognitive impairment. Says Rizzo,”My hat’s off to Ford.”

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