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Automakers Add New Features to Meet Needs of Older Drivers

Car designs appeal to a growing group of aging buyers

car braking as child crosses the street
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​Minivans with low step-up heights, augmented reality windshields for navigation, high-tech safety features and seat belts you don’t have to dig for are all on the menu for some automakers trying to appeal to older drivers.

Aging car buyers are a powerful force: Those 55 and older make up 42 percent of all new vehicle registrations, according to S&P Global Mobility. With the youngest boomers turning 65 by 2029, auto engineers are designing new vehicles with the goal of retaining existing customers as they age and attracting new ones.

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For Jim Donaldson, 70, of Green, Ohio, features that make it easier for an older person to drive sold him on the Kia EV6 he purchased this year.

The former Ford production supervisor liked the front seat that automatically moves back, making it easier to enter, and the blue-light filter display screen lighting to reduce eye strain. The model’s augmented reality windshield also makes directions easy to see while keeping your eyes on the road, he says. “The car does a lot of thinking for you,” Donaldson says.

Donaldson isn’t the only older driver drawn to the Kia EV6. Since the cars began arriving, in January 2022, 32 percent of buyers of the all-electric EV6 are over 56, according to Kia America. Buyers over 56 represent the largest segment of Kia’s overall customer base.

And Kia certainly isn’t the only manufacturer wooing older buyers. Ford Motor Company, for example, is focused on making sure new technology is easy for older drivers to use, says Katie Allanson, Ford’s Advanced Driver Assistance Systems customer experience supervisor. If it gets too complicated, “we’re going to lose those customers to another company that is thinking about these things,” she says.

An emphasis on safety

Age-friendly features were on full view at the 2022 North American International Auto Show in Detroit in September — sometimes in unexpected places.

Mary Ann Capo, senior manager of Chrysler Brand Product Planning, demonstrated the age-friendly features of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan: a low step-up height that makes it easy to enter the vehicle, and second-row seats that fold into the floor to create space for large items like walkers.

While the minivan tends to be associated with parents toting young children, more than 60 percent of Pacifica buyers are over 50, according to Eric Mayne, a spokesman for global automaker Stellantis, which manufactures and sells Chryslers.

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Minivans can be useful for transporting grandchildren, and snowbirds appreciate the roomy interior when they head south each winter, Capo says. It also comes with 97 standard safety features, which Capo says is important to older drivers. “They want to ensure that when they’re driving this, they’re safe, and their passengers are safe,” she says.

That’s true for Miriam Karp, 64, who bought a 2020 Mazda CX-3 in April. Karp, of Cincinnati, had purchased only much older-model used cars in the past, but driving all over the city as a community chaplain convinced her “it was important to pay extra for a newer car that would have safety features.”

A small SUV like the CX-3 held appeal because the seating is higher than a regular car, making it easier to enter and exit. The Mazda, she says, had an excellent safety record and cost less than comparable models. “I do feel more safe and secure” in it, she adds.

Small compact SUVs like the one Karp chose “are some of the best vehicles for older drivers,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations for the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. More than 43 percent of these compact SUVs were bought by those ages 55 and older, according to S&P Global Mobility. While a sedan “requires some ducking and lifting,” small SUVs have seats that are at hip height, which provides ease of access, as well as additional visibility, Stockburger says.

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A focus on accessibility

At General Motors, designers and engineers are creating vehicles with accessibility in mind, says Carrie Morton, the company’s first chief engineer of accessibility. That means considering people who are aging and those with disabilities when creating accessories suited to a specific challenge, like an extra handle to help get in and out of the vehicle, or a small lift to get packages, wheelchairs and scooters in and out of the vehicle. GM is exploring how existing features that assist with driving or make it easier to enter and exit the vehicle could be offered as an “accessibility package,” Morton says.

Ford is also practicing inclusive design. On its e-shifter, there are knobs with rubber or etching on the side so it’s easier to grasp. Seat belt clasps protrude from the seats, so you don’t have to dig around and retrieve them. “We’re trying to make the most mandatory task that you really need to do as easy as possible for people,” Allanson says.

GM plans to launch a software program next year called Ultifi, which allows a car to operate more like a smart home, anticipating the driver’s needs and amping up the safety features. It could, for example, allow windshield wipers with sensors to close the windows when it rains. Or the vehicle could lower the volume on your radio if it detects a conversation.

Many car manufacturers continue to add automated driving features to improve safety. Starting in 2023, certain Toyota models will include Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) 3.0, which provides gentle braking into curves and steering support to help stay in a lane and keep a safe distance from the car ahead, says Cody Emmert, cross vehicle line senior analyst for Toyota Marketing.

Also offered will be an Emergency Driving Stop System that monitors a driver’s steering and pedal inputs. If the system determines the driver is inactive — perhaps due to a medical emergency — and the driver fails to respond to prompts to resume control of the vehicle, it can bring the vehicle to a stop, Emmert says.

The features and design traits that are good for older buyers are popular across the car-buying market, says Will Kaufman, a senior editor and content strategist for Edmunds. “A lot of it is about making the car easier to live with and easier to use every day,” he says, “and that's something that most car buyers are looking for.” ​