By Brian Goslow
A back-up camera. Keyless entry. Heated seats. A navigation system that tells you where you’re going. And a radio that tells you what you’re listening to.
This is not your father’s Oldsmobile or even the Dodge Dart you drove in your formative years or purchased as your son or daughter’s first car. Today’s automobile isn’t just built to get you where you want to go — it’s built to get you there safely and comfortably.
And that’s important in a climate where statistics are showing a rapidly growing proportion of the new-car buying market is 55 and older. When it comes to who is buying new light-duty vehicles these days, the auto industry needs to pay greater attention to this demographic, according to a study conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (TRI).
In the “Marketing Implications of the Changing Age Composition of Vehicle Buyers in the U.S.” report, Michael Sivak, TRI’s director of Sustainable Worldwide Transportation, noted that industry marketing efforts focusing on drivers 55 to 64 years of age should have the highest probability of success per driver due to the growing numbers of this demographic.
“The emphasis on this relatively older age group is further supported by the expected continuation of the graying of the general population and the consequent continuation of the increase in the number of older licensed drivers,” Sivak stated.
TRI researchers utilized sales data from 2007 and 2011 to study the differences in the probability of licensed drivers purchasing a new car, pickup truck, SUV or minivan as a function of their age. They found the peak probability age for buying a new vehicle in 2007 was 35-44; by 2011, it had jumped to 55-64.
It found two notable trends that could be responsible for its findings tilting toward the older market: The economic downtrend of that time period substantially reduced overall vehicle sales and the recent substantial decrease in the proportion of young people with a driver’s license.
A recently released MIT AgeLab/The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence report found this trend is not only likely to continue, but that many of today’s baby boomer drivers have no intention of ever relinquishing their keys.
In its findings in “Desire to Drive: Majority of Boomers Plan to Keep the Keys into their Later Years,” the report’s researchers found that 76 percent of boomers currently in the 50-68 bracket plan to drive well into their 80s or 90s — or simply never stop. “Boomers are likely to remain on the go as they age,” said The Hartford’s executive director, Jodi Olshevski, in releasing the study. “They are not anticipating a need to change their driving behavior in the years to come.”
Although almost all of those surveyed (96 percent) expected to drive less often or shorter distances in their later years, 78 percent expected to maintain their same rate of driving over the next five to 10 years. MIT AgeLab director Joseph Coughlin noted in the report’s findings that driving would continue to be a key element to boomers remaining active and independent.
When it comes to shopping for a new car, seniors seem to look for the same things as everyone else. “Safety, reliability and of course, a good price,” said Stephen Geer, sales manager at Long Subaru of Webster. “Many of our 55+ customers want room for their dogs, plants and household goods, building materials and sporting equipment — bikes, kayaks and the like. Many of them also look for a vehicle with a decent hip-point so they don’t have to climb into or sit down into a vehicle.”
For customers with health issues for which their doctors have recommended installation of specific accessories or modifications to assist them with their driving, Subaru offers “Mobilitease,” a program that reimburses up to $500 of the cost, Geer said.
Dom Genova, owner and president of Genesee Valley Motors of New York, said that manufacturers do a good job at designing and innovating vehicles for older drivers but do not target older drivers in their advertising campaigns for fear of giving their product “a less than youthful” image.
“Cars are an emotional buy no matter how you look at it and no one wants to be in an ‘old fuddy duddy’ car no matter how well it fits their needs,” he said. Instead, to target older buyers, manufacturers advertise on programming that demographic is known to watch, such as network national news programs.
Asked what the three most important things his 55+ customers look for when they come into one of his showrooms, Genova said, “Comfort, dependability and utility.” He said minivans are undergoing a resurgence with older buyers who buy them to travel — and are the biggest buyers of the “rear DVD” option as they want it to keep their grandkids entertained.
The Ford Jeep Cherokee and Escape are among his top current boomer age friendly vehicles.
“The Jeep Cherokee has great fuel economy, which is important to a buyer on a fixed income,” Genova said. “The visibility is fantastic and the technology in the vehicles is a great help to older buyers. You can get cross path monitoring that tells you if you are going into someone else’s lane, rear cameras and navigation.”
The Ford Escape has an available feature where a swipe of your foot under the back of the car opens the tailgate. “What a great advantage for a retiree carrying packages,” he noted.
Craig Fitzgerald, president of the New England Motor Press Association, said his organization is particularly interested in how the industry is helping engineer safer drivers, whether they’re aging, inexperienced or just not paying attention.
He has added interest in the subject — his 82-year-old mother still drives. “Helping her navigate the equipment a new car provides is part of the issue,” Fitzgerald said. “I have her drive me around every few months so I can see if she’s still got what it takes to drive safely.”
While most of today’s new cars contain new features intended to improve driving conditions, Fitzgerald said they could be a double-edged sword for older drivers. “Every bit of new technology comes with another layer of complexity, even when those features are ostensibly there to help,” he said.
As an example, he noted how a few years ago, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), which make products and components for other companies to use in their end products, started moving all controls to a touch panel. “It found out that all owners, not just older drivers, were having trouble navigating menus just to change the temperature,” Fitzgerald said. “You’re now seeing car companies like Chrysler moving their more frequently used controls — heat, audio — back to large knobs that older drivers can use intuitively.”
Another adjustment had to be made when the combination of safety and aerodynamics in new model cars had the unintended consequence of making them difficult to see out of. “Roof crush standards and the ability to cheat the wind meant that the ‘beltline’ — the line directly underneath the side windows of the car — got higher, and the pillars that hold the roof up got very obtrusive,” Fitzgerald said. “What little view you had out the rear window was now blocked by three headrests in the rear.”
Since older drivers dealing with diminishing eyesight already had issues looking out of their rear window in the best of circumstances, this development made backing up a real hazard. He said the addition of rearview cameras that provide a clear view of what’s behind them were “a literal lifesaver,” and that the United States Department of Transportation has mandated them for all new vehicles under 10,000 pounds by 2018. The feature also gives older drivers the ability to see what’s behind them when they back up without constantly twisting their neck or body around.
Now in its fourth year, the New England Motor Press Association/MIT Technology Conference, which brings together field experts for discussions on leading edge automotive issues, will be held on May 29 at the MIT AgeLab. A main area of discussion will be an unintended result of the development and implementation of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications that were intended to improve traffic flow, reduce bottlenecks, improve safety and increase fuel efficiency.
Combined with the development of autonomous self-guiding vehicles, these technological advances are now making many of the decisions drivers used to have to make for themselves. Whereas driving used to demand a driver’s full attention, many are now shifting their focus onto the growing amount of infotainment features being used in cars today, leading to more people driving distracted.
So what products and features do 50+ drivers really want available when they buy a new vehicle? That was the question MIT AgeLab and The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence asked 50+ drivers for its “Top Technologies for Mature Drivers: Consumer Insights” study last fall.
The most desirable technologies are:
•Blind spot warning systems that warn drivers of objects in blind spots, especially while changing lanes and parking, and are especially helpful for those with limited range of motion; reverse monitoring systems that warn drivers of objects to the rear of the vehicle to help them judge distances and back up safely and helps drivers with reduced flexibility.
•Desired pro-active features include crash mitigation systems that detect when the vehicle may be in danger of a collision and can help to minimize injuries to passengers, and emergency response systems that offer quick assistance to drivers in the case of a medical emergency or collision, often allowing emergency personnel to get to the scene more quickly.
•Drowsy driver alerts, vehicle stability control, lane departure warning and voice activated systems that allow drivers to access features by voice command, as opposed to having to move their attention from the road.
•Smart headlights that adjust the range and intensity of light based on the distance of traffic, and reduce glare and improve night vision, especially for seniors for whom night driving can be particularly difficult.
•Drivers of any age appreciate assisted parking systems that enable vehicles to park on their own or indicate distance to objects, an exercise that has been found to reduce driver stress, make parking easier and increase the range of spaces where a driver is capable of parking.