From radar sensors that beep when there's a car in your blind spot to cars that literally drive themselves, new technologies promise to make driving safer for older drivers and easier for everyone.
"Forty percent of the population will be over 55 soon," said Marilyn Vala, a Chrysler engineer. "Those people are going to have a lot of money and they're going to need cars to remain independent and mobile. People 65 and over are predicted to be four times more likely to buy a new vehicle than those under 25."
The proportion of vehicles registered to older drivers has risen consistently in recent years. It should continue for some time, while the percentage of vehicles registered to younger drivers has declined.
"The baby boom is still big, bigger than Generation X," IHS senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said. "Car companies have to pay attention; those customers want to stay mobile, but their physical needs are changing."
Auto engineers and designers are walking a fine line. They want to make vehicles easier to use without appearing to build cars for fogeys.
"The key question about any technology is how it makes life better for its user, regardless of age," Brinley said. The features that make vehicles easier for people with physical limitations work better for drivers of all ages.
Many of the features — blind-spot detection and lane-departure alert, automatic braking to avoid collisions, voice-recognition — are already available. Others that sound like science fiction will be on the road soon. Auto supplier Visteon is working on systems that read the driver's eye movements and hand motions. Look for those technologies on some new cars within five years.
"Everyone wants a vehicle that's more intuitive and easier to use," said Richard Vaughan, director of corporate innovation and design at Visteon. "The technologies we're working on will benefit everybody. In addition to the aging, there are 47 million people in the United States with some degree of disability."
Simple design considerations make vehicles easier for everyone to use, Chrysler's Vala said. For a start, all the controls should be located at torso level.
The new 200 contains a host of what Vala called "transparent enablers," features that seem so simple the driver doesn't even realize they're easier to use. The car's buttons are labeled in legible fonts with contrasting backgrounds and backlit so they don't require a second look while driving.
Unlike the flat-panel controls some automakers have adopted, the 200 has physical switches that move and make a sound. The driver knows they're working without looking away from the road.
The 200's electronically controlled transmission and parking brake are easier to use than old-style handles, pedals and levers.
"Today's aging drivers are the people who adopted the first video games, cellphones and minivans," Visteon's Vaughan said. "They remain capable and interested in evolving."
The next big step will be linking the safety and assistance systems to create vehicles that approach and achieve full autonomy. Within 10 years or so, those vehicles may change the game completely for aging and physically limited drivers.
"Cars should absolutely offer greater mobility to people who are physically challenged," said John Capp, General Motors lead engineer for active safety, electrical and control systems. "The assistance we can offer handicapped and elderly people is a real benefit to safety and autonomy systems."
"As we add technologies, it could very much help people drive who can't today," Capp said. "The building blocks are there to help drivers of all ages."