By Chuck Salter, Fall 2014
Over the past 60 years, one group of Americans has reshaped transportation as we know it. At every life stage, the baby boomers, the largest generation in history, have placed unprecedented demands on the vehicles we drive, the roads we travel—virtually every aspect of getting from point A to point B. As children, they inspired the development of the station wagon; as parents, the mini-van. They introduced the two-car household to accommodate two working parents, boosting car ownership and expanding the highway system. They raised the median household income by 60%, triggering a travel boom.
Now those 77 million people born between 1946 and 1964 are about to unleash another wave of changes as they enter their senior years. The transportation industry has never experienced anything like the aging of the population that has just begun. Over the next 18 years, roughly 8,000 people a day will join the ranks of the over-65 population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. By 2050, this older cohort will number 80 million, nearly double what it is today.
“This is going to drive a rethinking of everything from airplanes and airports to cars and public transit,” says Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of the MIT AgeLab. “That’s good. Because it’ll make the system safer and easier to navigate for everybody.”
The AgeLab is the first multi-disciplinary research lab exploring the impact of what Coughlin calls “the disruptive demographics” of older boomers. Founded in 1999, the lab prioritized transportation from the start, says Coughlin, because of the alarming “lack of infrastructure” for an older population. Companies such as Toyota and Nissan work with the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based researchers to better understand older people’s needs while adapting existing products or inventing new ones to address their findings.
The business opportunity is enormous, particularly for automakers. The automotive industry grew up with boomers, who have amassed about 70% of disposable income and remain the largest buyers of luxury vehicles.
Stealthy Solutions Required
A major point of focus for the AgeLab is to explore how best to adapt products to the physical changes that come with aging. Bones weaken, joints stiffen, and the spine curves. Vision and hearing dim. Reaction time slows. The solution, however, isn’t as obvious as a bigger, brighter dashboard with fewer buttons.
For boomers, a generation often defined by its age-defying sensibility, what’s required, says Coughlin, is “stealth design.” That is, technology to counteract the deficiencies of aging without pointing out those deficiencies. “This will be the hardest problem designers have had,” says Coughlin, 42. “How to design something cool but age-friendly. You can’t design an old-person’s car.”
At Toyota, the car of the future not only gives consumers more control over displays but also reduces distractions, says Chuck Gulash, director of Toyota’s Collaborative Safety Research Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Its D.A.R.V. concept car (Driver Awareness Research Vehicle) eliminates distractions before a driver even gets into the vehicle. Sensors identify the driver upon approach and display information on the window, such as the weather, the day’s appointments, and directions to the nearest gas station if fuel is low. The goal is to minimize multi-tasking on the road. “We asked how to make things better so that the driver is more aware and can do the job of driving,” says Gulash.
Once someone is behind the wheel, Toyota employs sensors to track blink rate and eye movement to detect fatigue or distraction. The technologies aren’t limited to older drivers, but they are especially relevant to this demographic. Other automakers and tech companies are testing a variety of monitors, such as U.K.-based Plessey’s ECG sensors embedded in car seats to detect heart rate. Eventually, says Coughlin, your car could emit scents that calm you down or keep you alert.
“Imagine a car starting to become more sensitive to your health,” he says. “It would be designed to keep you in an optimal state.” The connected car could also share data with a health-care provider to monitor someone’s condition, a vital benefit for the elderly.
Walking in the Elderly’s Shoes
Boomers will be the largest older generation America has ever seen and they’ll also live to be the oldest, thanks to improved health care and better nutrition. The fastest growing segment within the older population is what’s known as the “oldest old,” those over 85.
To aid designers, researchers, and executives in understanding the realities of aging, the AgeLab has created a specially designed suit that replicates what it feels like to be old. AGNES, an acronym for Age Gain Now Empathy Suit, is outfitted with leg braces, straps and arm weights to limit mobility and flexibility, creating the sensation of moving in a 75-year-old’s body. A weighted helmet forces you to bend over slightly. Goggles blur your vision. Earplugs dull your hearing. Gloves turn your hands arthritic.
If companies can identify with what aging boomers are going through, says Coughlin, they’ll be better equipped to modify or create products and services to make these consumers more comfortable and extend their independence.
Rebels Without a Car
Wherever the boomers settle down in their later years, they’ll require changes in local transportation infrastructures. Traditionally, older Americans have lived in suburban or rural areas, where public transit is the least available. If boomers continue that pattern, they’ll demand new and easy-to-navigate services to serve them. If they rebel against traditional patterns (and that tends to be their way), the boomers will migrate to cities, following the current (and young) wave of urbanization. This shift will overwhelm public transit systems, forcing the infrastructure to expand and adapt to older riders.
These trends could speed the evolution of the driverless car: a logical solution for a population that wants to retain independence while also easing the demands of being a driver. Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research, predicts a rent-on-demand model will take hold. The arrangement will give consumers access to a fleet of vehicles from which to choose, depending on their taste and needs. “It’s leasing on steroids,” says Wallace. “You’ll buy a mobility package.”
Ultimately, the Silver Tsunami, as some call the aging boomers, will change more than just transportation through these innovations. They will alter how cities and communities operate and how society interacts, because transportation is about more than mere vehicles. “Transportation reflects and reinforces how you live, work, and relate to other people,” says Coughlin. “It’s the glue that connects all those big and little things that we call life.”