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Carmakers Put the Focus on Older Drivers

Vehicles at Detroit Auto Show showcase safety, versatility and fun new features

Ford 2020 Explorer

Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The 2020 Ford Explorer has been redesigned inside and out. 

Comfy seats, easy in-and-out, versatility and the latest and best safety technologies. Car manufacturers say older drivers’ wants and needs such as these are behind some of the latest features on display in the newest generation of vehicles at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week.

The desire for a versatile car is why so many older drivers are snapping up SUVs these days, says Tim Franklin, director of product planning for Infiniti USA: “We are definitely seeing older folks living their life in a very active way. They need the ability to throw things in the back of the car, whether it’s a wheelchair or a mountain bike.” 

Infiniti engineers are working on a small SUV — other details yet to be revealed — whose target customer is a woman in her 50s, Franklin says. As part of the development process, designers found a real-life woman in her mid-50s to use as a prototypical buyer. They’ve visited her house, driven around with her, and studied her lifestyle and vehicle needs. This woman is “living life to the fullest,” Franklin explains, while taking care of her grandmother and helping care for her grandkids, so her car should be “addressing that very broad range of use.”

Other features older drivers tend to want, and that many carmakers are providing:


The 2020 Ford Explorer will come with the Ford Co-Pilot 360 package that’s already the standard on nearly all 2019 Fords (including blind-spot detection, rearview cameras, lane-keeping assist and other now common safety tech). But, says Chris Billman, Ford’s global driver assist technology manager, it also will be the first vehicle to offer the option to add even more advanced safety features: reverse brake assist to avoid collision while backing up; intelligent adaptive cruise control, which can not only adjust your set speed to keep enough distance between you and the car in front of you but also read speed-limit signs and automatically change your set speed; and what Ford is calling “active park assist 2.0.” While the 1.0 version could control the steering for parallel or perpendicular parking, this update will do it all for you — controlling the steering, accelerating and braking with the push of a button.

Ford was on hand at the auto show with virtual reality goggles that allowed attendees to experience these new features, and, Billings says, “We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback from older drivers.” 

Considering that three-quarters of its buyers are age 50 or older, Hyundai also is committed to including the most advanced safety features in its new line of cars, says Michael O’Brien, Hyundai’s vice president of product, corporate and digital planning. The sporty 2020 Elantra that Hyundai unveiled at the show has the top-level safety tech, plus bigger windows — or as they put it in the industry, a lower beltline — for better visibility. 


Older drivers have said in Ford’s focus group sessions that a big priority when choosing a car is whether it’s easy to get in and out of it, says Ford Explorer’s brand marketing manager, Lee Newcombe, so the 2020 Explorer includes a new platform that’s a shorter distance from the ground, and less of a step up than earlier models.

It’ll also be easier to access the rear of the car in the 2020 model: Touch a button to slide the second-row seats forward and reach the third-row seats and cargo area, rather than having to physically move seats for access.

Derek Joyce, Hyundai’s senior manager for product and advanced powertrain public relations, says the company’s designers spend a lot of time analyzing ergonomics (the body’s most efficient/comfortable positions and movements), and work hard to make the controls easy to operate even for someone “with arthritis or who is less mobile with their hands.” Sometimes younger engineers will put on thick gloves, making their fingers less nimble, to simulate what people may experience with age.

interior of 2019 Infiniti QX Inspiration Concept at the Detroit Auto Show

Getty Images

A look inside the Infiniti QX Inspiration, a concept electric car.

Intuitive Controls

The carmakers say the latest features don’t demand any tech savvy to operate: Rather, their point is to give their customers even less to worry about while they drive.

The BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, which can be activated by voice command, will become available this year on vehicles that feature the new BMW iDrive 7.0  infotainment system. It’s cool stuff: Saying “Hey, BMW, I feel tired” triggers a program that adjusts the lighting mood, music and temperature to make the driver feel more awake.

And useful for anyone, but especially for someone whose memory may need a little jogging: The new Chevrolet Equinox, a compact SUV, comes with a Rear Seat Reminder. It chimes to remind drivers to check the back seat for important items — groceries, a purse or briefcase or, yikes, a grandchild — before they leave the car.

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