For older adults with limited mobility, getting in and out of a vehicle can be challenging and even painful. Unfortunately, limited mobility, hearing and vision loss are just a few of the obstacles facing many senior drivers and passengers.
That’s why the engineers at Ford are using technology to better understand their customer’s experiences. Ford’s empathy mindset helps engineers find creative solutions to make driving comfortable, more enjoyable and safer for people of all abilities and ages.
Read more about how this mindset and Ford’s “Third Age Suit” are helping engineers develop cars with seniors in mind.
“When we get feedback from customers who couldn’t drive before because they couldn’t fasten their seat belt without help but can now get in the car on their own, those are emotional, heartwarming stories,” says Katie Allanson, an ergonomist and human-factors engineer who works at Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.
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“Our customers are people, not just numbers, and we’re committed to supporting their independence and helping them stay behind the wheel as long as possible with inclusive and universal designs,” she says.
How is it possible for an engineer in good physical health to really understand what it’s like to be an older adult with age-related ailments?
The answer lies in Ford’s “Third Age Suit.”
The “Third Age Suit,” which simulates a person’s physical limitations, isn’t new to Ford. The company has been using the suit since 1995 to “ensure our newest employees understand the customer experience,” Allanson says.
The suit is worn by Ford’s engineers to simulate physical conditions experienced by customers and exemplify how these limitations impact a customer’s overall experience with the vehicle.
The suit is designed to limit mobility especially around the joints (ankles, elbows and knees). The range of motion is also limited when wearing the suit, making it difficult to shift weight from one foot to the other and almost impossible to fully turn the head to check blind spots.
Speaking of checking blind spots, the suit is equipped with goggles that impair vision by simulating cataracts, glaucoma and other vision-related issues. The suit also has special gloves: one that mimics the tremors that someone with Parkinson’s would experience and another that demonstrates the weakness and finger sensitivity of someone with carpal tunnel.
The suit can also simulate hearing issues by using ear muffs and headphones to help engineers understand which chimes and voice-activated commands can and can’t be heard by those with a hearing impediment.
So, what do these engineers do once they have the suit on? They use the car just as anyone would. They get in the vehicle, adjust the seat, put on the seat belt and turn to speak to someone in the back seat. Sometimes they’re carrying bags and boxes. Other times they’re wearing bulky winter gear. While wearing the suit, engineers try to get comfortable. They also move around to ensure there is enough head and shoulder room to accommodate people who have longer torsos.
Inevitably during this experience, engineers come across situations that they hadn’t seen or thought of before. Once they’ve identified a problem with the driver or passenger experience, they find a solution. They also apply their experience across their designs, making considerations for others in ways they just wouldn’t have “gotten” before.
Ultimately, the suit makes Ford’s engineers more creative and empathetic, ensuring that the customer experience is at the heart of all their designs.
Considering that Ford’s been using the suit for over 20 years, what kind of designs have already been integrated into their vehicles?
Allanson states that engineers have:
While these are just a few of their important enhancements, the company’s emphasis on empathy is arguably the most important takeaway, especially for anyone with a loved one who has physical limitations.
“Think about how you look at your vehicles and the people in your family who use them,” Allanson advises.
Allanson’s own parents are in their 70s and when she first used the “Third Age Suit,” it helped her reflect back to when her dad had his knee replaced.
“It was easy for me to be impatient and short, but once I experienced it myself I could see how difficult it really was for him to get in and out of the vehicle,” she says. “It was a teaching moment for me.”
The Institute on Aging states that by 2030, 20% of the American population will be older adults, which means it’s going to be more important than ever for companies to follow Ford’s lead and ensure products are inclusively and universally designed with empathy in mind.
Do you, a parent or senior loved one find features of your vehicle difficult to use or maneuver? Do you think Ford’s “Third Age Suit” will impact other vehicles’ designs? We’d like to hear your stories and thoughts in the comments below.