New technology lets aging drivers keep the keys longer

When automakers add safety technology to their cars, they don’t go out of their way to advertise the new features to older drivers – that would be self-defeating.

“The car remains a symbol of youthfulness, independence and freedom,” says Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which studies and develops a wide range of age-related technology. “If I sell a car pitched as an old man’s car, I can guarantee a younger man or woman won’t buy it – and neither will the older man.”

But that doesn’t mean older drivers don’t care about safety. It turns out that older drivers want technologies that help them change lanes safely and park more easily. That was the finding of a survey of drivers over age 50 that MIT and The Hartford insurance company released this week.

The top five preferred technologies among older drivers: blind spot warning systems, crash warning systems, emergency response assistance systems, drowsy driver alerts and reverse monitoring that warn of objects behind the car.

Automotive technology that helps keep older drivers safe will gain importance in the years ahead. The nation’s aging demographics are reflected in the car-buying population – the most likely car buyer was between 55 and 64 years of age in 2011, up from 35 to 44 in 2007, according to a recent report by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. And with most baby boomers saying they plan to age in place – staying right where they are as they grow older – that means there will be a surge in older drivers on the roads, especially in suburban and rural areas, where public transportation options are limited.

Coughlin says safety system developments reflect a convergence of aerospace and automotive technology. “The automotive industry used to be a mechanical engineering business, but today a car is a computer on wheels with far more software then levers and belts.” Learn more at Reuters Money.