shifting gears

By Published on .

graying boomers with money to burn and a reluctance to admit they're aging will pose challenges to automakers preparing for the coming wave of seniors behind the wheel.

Kathy Ryan, a 52-year-old ski instructor and golf merchandiser from Vail, Colorado, is buying a car. She is shopping convertibles from European makers, including BMW, Audi, and Saab. She's leaning toward the Audi TT convertible when it comes out next spring.

"My requirements were enough trunk space for two sets of golf clubs and roller blades, the ability to have a bike rack, and good performance," she says. Just in case, she'll keep either her 1991 Subaru or her 1994 Volkswagen, each with more than 100,000 miles on them, for utility. "But it'll be the Audi that punches my ticket," she says.

Auto companies, their suppliers, and industry prognosticators are paying close attention to vehicle purchases by over-50 buyers like Ryan, who belongs to one of the country's largest and fastest-growing car-buying segments. Right now, 76 million people in the United States are 50 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In five years, 85 million will be over 50.

"Aging baby boomers are the biggest and most significant buying group in the population. Through their retirement years, they will grow stronger as a buying entity and will remain so until their time is gone," says Nate Young, group vice president of market planning, new product development and industrial design for Plymouth, Michigan-based Johnson Controls Inc., one of the world's largest suppliers of automotive interior components, including seats.

The size of the population segment, its affluence, and longer life expectancy - which suggests baby boomers will drive longer than did their parents - has captured the attention of the auto industry, which is trying to get inside the heads of people like Ryan to figure out if and how their car-buying patterns will change as they grow older.

At the moment, over-50 car buyers generally purchase more expensive vehicles than the rest of the population, ranging from pricier mid-size cars to top-of-the-line luxury automobiles and premium sport utility vehicles, according to an exclusive analysis for American Demographics of the 1999 APEAL study done by J.D. Power & Associates, a market research firm in Agoura Hills, California. The APEAL study is based on responses from nearly 88,000 new-vehicle owners, and examines what people like about their new cars and trucks and what kinds of features they require in their vehicles.

The study shows that the over-50 crowd is slightly more likely to purchase domestic brands than imported ones, favoring domestic nameplates in 12 out of 19 vehicle segments, versus 11 of 19 for the under-50 group.

The major difference between the over-50 and under-50 buyers is psychographic - why they buy what they buy. The older buyers lean toward more sensible vehicles, while the largest group of younger buyers consider themselves "practical enthusiasts," they want utility, but with a little more fun and emotion. As expected, the plus-50 buyers rate quality, reliability, and durability higher than do under-50 buyers, who rank emotional appeal higher. "The younger buyers want more sex appeal and flash. That's what excites them," says Jacques daCosta, J.D. Power's senior manager of product research.

In addition, older buyers' lists of must-have features relate largely to comfort and convenience. They want leather seats, lumbar support, and sturdy cup holders; younger buyers, meanwhile, list premium audio systems with CD changers and sunroofs as higher priorities. Both groups rank safety and security features - such as antitheft alarms and side airbags - high on their wish lists.

In general, however, the J.D. Power data suggest that far fewer differences in buying patterns exist between the over-50 and under-50 buyers than one might expect. That is partly due to the fact that the greatest number of buyers in the under-50 group surveyed fall between the ages of 45 and 49, and the largest group in the over-50 group are between 50 and 54. In addition, other demographics are fairly similar: incomes and educational levels are only slightly higher for the younger group. The number of children at home stands out as a major demographic divide: Of those surveyed, fully 85 percent of the over-50 crowd are empty nesters.

Auto manufacturers and suppliers, who take up to four years to develop new cars and trucks, are forming special teams to conduct surveys and consumer clinics to find out what older buyers want in their vehicles. All are finding many of the things older buyers need and want are rather simple: They want large knobs and switches to control the radio and temperature. They're keen on high-contrast numbers and letters that are easy to read. They like large door openings and high-positioned seats to make it easier to get in and out of the vehicle. Interior door handles must be large and easy to grip.

At General Motors Corp., the Paragon Team is studying the needs of aging car buyers - many of whom face physical challenges - and is testing new vehicles to make sure they meet those needs. Team leader Paul Ulrich notes that one in five Americans has a physical disability, and arthritis due to aging is the biggest culprit. "As automakers, we need to accommodate the aging process," says Ulrich, who himself was stricken with polio and uses a wheelchair. "If driving is painful or uncomfortable, people will limit their trips, and we don't want that."

Ulrich's group conducts consumer clinics with older drivers, some with disabilities, by having them test drive GM vehicles and their competitors. Based on the research, GM has made several design changes in its vehicles to adapt to older drivers' needs. For instance, one man, who had polio as a child and severe arthritis as an adult, could not turn the ignition key mounted on the steering column in any of the ten vehicles he tried in the consumer clinic. As a result, GM has developed a new ignition switch that is larger and easier to turn. Increasingly, GM is locating the ignition switch on the dashboard instead of the steering column, so the wrist is straight as the key is turned, providing more direct force. Climate-control knobs are also larger in GM's new vehicles, lettering is an easy-to-read white on a black background, and interior door handles are open all the way around, so the hand can get a solid grip to pull the door closed.

Ford Motor Co. has developed what it calls the Third Age Suit, an outfit its designers don to simulate movements of an aging person. The coveralls have devices like athletic braces at all the joints, including the ankles, knees, and neck, that restrict movement. Rubber gloves simulate the way an older person loses touch and fine motor skills. Heavily-tinted, fogged glasses replicate the yellowing of the eyes.

"By wearing this suit, a young person ages by about 30 years and can get a good idea of what reduced mobility and strength is like," says Fred Lupton, an ergonomics engineer at Ford. "It sensitizes designers and engineers to consider the needs of the population entering the third age of life."

At Mazda, designers invited drivers age 55 to 75 into its studios to design their own car interiors. The seniors sat inside a model of a car, adjusted the seat, positioned the steering wheel, and pointed out where they wanted controls. As they made their adjustments, a computer stored their input and later created a blueprint of the results. From that information, as well as videotapes of interviews with the participants, Mazda's designers developed a new interior.

"We came up with a universal design, ideal for a senior, but it doesn't look like an old person's car. In fact, it has a lot of cool stuff," says Truman Pollard, chief designer for Mazda Design North America.

The Lear Corp., a Southfield, Michigan-based supplier of seats and interior components, had a similar discovery when it held focus groups of buyers aged 50 to 75. The older buyers tried on a racing-style, four-point safety belt that Lear had installed in a Saab to run on a race track. Lear designers knew the safety belt would appeal to young drivers of high-performance automobiles. But they were surprised to learn that older buyers liked it too because the two shoulder harnesses slipped on easily, like the straps of a child's back pack, and the lap belt proved far easier to buckle in front than traditional belts that slide into a slot mounted on the side of the seat.

"It hit both nails on the head," says Jim Masters, president of Lear's technology division. "It was easier to use and is safer because, in an accident, it would spread the forces evenly across the body."

Lear incorporated the seat belt as well as a number of other features in a concept vehicle it calls the Trans G. Seats swivel and the steering wheel moves out of the way to make it easier to emerge from the car. The flat floor requires no leg lifting over a door sill to climb in. The rear storage tray pulls out so large, bulky items like golf clubs and suitcases can slide out instead of requiring the person to lean into the vehicle to get them. White-on-blue lettering proved the easiest to read for aging eyes. And all controls are push buttons instead of switches and knobs.

Johnson Controls has also conducted consumer clinics to consider how the overall architecture of a vehicle should change to suit aging drivers. Since boomers now are buying trucks, minivans, and sport utilities in record numbers, Johnson Controls is developing ways to help people climb aboard these higher vehicles more easily. For instance, the company designed a seat that has a side bolster for the thigh that folds down when the driver wants to get out. Johnson Controls is also developing ways to make technology less intimidating to older drivers. "Our research shows that of the plus-50 buyers, more than 60 percent say they are intimidated by technology, whereas only about 40 percent of the 18-to-34-year-olds are intimidated," says Johnson Controls' Young.

Indeed, the aging baby boomer is far less willing to jump on the newest technological features such as navigation, night vision, and adjustable pedals than the younger set, even though it may fit their safety, security, comfort, and convenience requirements. In the J.D. Power APEAL study, items such as night vision, introduced on the 2000 Cadillac DeVille to improve nighttime visibility for older drivers, and smart airbags, like those on the 2000 Ford Taurus, which know when, with what force, and which airbags to deploy in an accident, rank farther down the list of have-to-haves with older drivers than the younger ones.

They'll come around. For now, the biggest question confronting automakers, their suppliers, and auto industry forecasters is what kinds of vehicles the over-50 buyers will purchase as they grow older. "The question is, where do they go from luxury cars and sport utilities?" says J. D. Power's daCosta. "Will they go back to cars? Will they search for the next sport utility?"

Or, will they, like Kathy Ryan, opt for the sports car? "The jury is still out on that one," says daCosta.

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