Wearing Suit Helps Ford Understand Mature Drivers

6 January 1999

Wearing Suit Helps Ford Understand Mature Drivers

DETROIT, Jan. 6 -- How can young ergonomics engineers develop vehicles for customers as much as 30 years older than they are?

A desire to better understand the special needs of older customers led to Ford's breakthrough development of the Third Age Suit in conjunction with the University of Loughborough in England. The suit, which appears to be a cross between a bee-catcher's protective gear and a high-tech astronaut suit, restricts Ford engineers' agility to simulate driving capabilities of individuals 30 years older than themselves.

The suit is made up of materials that add bulk and restrict movement in key areas of the body such as the knees, elbows, stomach and back. Together with gloves that reduce the sense of touch and goggles that simulate cataracts, the Third Age Suit gives engineers and designers a feel for the needs of an older generation as they design new vehicles.

"We developed this suit to show our engineers and designers what it feels like to be an older person," said Vivek Bhise, manager, Human Factors and Ergonomics for Ford. "When you are young, you think you're designing for everybody, but you really don't understand the range of people and their limitations."

The Ford Focus is the first Ford product to benefit from extensive use of the suit as it first came into use as the vehicle development program started. The expected wide range of Focus customers all will benefit from this increased awareness of restricted mobility caused by aging. Designers and engineers developed the car with more headroom than the Escort for ease of ingress/egress in addition to providing a more comfortable interior. The suit also led to a class-leading 'H-point' -- the point at which the hips swivel -- also making it easier to enter and exit the Focus.

"When you're young and fit enough to leap out of a car without effort, it's hard to appreciate why an older person may need to lever themselves out of the driver's seat by pushing on the seat back and the door frame," said Mike Bradley, ergonomics specialist in Ford's Dunton, England design center and Ford's first full-time ergonomics specialist dedicated to one vehicle development program in Europe. "But, try leaping out while you are wearing this suit and you really understand the challenges we face."

Ford engineers are using the Third Age Suit to keep pace with the demands of aging baby boomers over the coming decades. Demographics show that the number of people in the United States between 55 and 74 will almost double by 2030 -- rising from 40 million to about 74 million. In Europe between 1985 and 2005, the number of male drivers over 65 is expected to increase by 90 percent while the number of female drivers in this age range will grow by more than 200 percent.

As people age, their physical capabilities erode. Experts on aging say most functions degrade at a rate of 5 percent to 10 percent for every 10 years an adult ages.

"Our top priorities in establishing an automotive product development benchmark are understanding and satisfying our customers," said Richard Parry- Jones, vice president -- Product Development. "The numbers show that mature and elderly drivers are becoming an increasingly large percentage of the motoring public. So, with the Third Age Suit, we believe we have an advantage in knowing what that large demographic group demands."

Ford development teams in both the United States and Europe are using Third Age Suits in ergonomics research.

"It's one thing to read customer feedback in a marketing study," Bhise said. "It's a whole different thing to feel what they're feeling while driving a car. This has been a real eye-opener for our engineers."

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