In the developed world, many of us can expect to live 14 years longer than our grandparents – and this represents a new emerging market for the car industry. Bernard Porter and Dr Christine Broughan from Coventry University look at the need for vehicles to be designed that will increase the likelihood of individuals being able to continue to drive for many more years

At Coventry University we have been monitoring the motor industry for many years, and believe there is now evidence of a shift occurring in vehicle design principles.

The two main factors driving this change are the emergence of several demographic trends over the past few decades, coupled with the push towards low carbon vehicles with different architecture. These are now causing vehicle designers and manufacturers to review their product strategies with some new ideas and perhaps a new approach.

Across the developed world the majority of us can expect to live 14 years longer than our grandparents. This increase in life expectancy has often been painted as a burden to the rest of society – but, little has been said about the potential opportunity that this generation may also represent.

Consider this: when was the last time the car industry was faced with a new emerging market representing 868 million people? What is potentially more exciting about this section of the population is that it is likely that they will have more disposable income or wealth than previous generations of older people.

Ageing index

In 2000 only a few countries had a greater number of people over 65 than those under 15 years (known as the ageing index). By 2030 all developed countries will have in excess of a ratio of 1:1 on the ageing index, and in certain countries, such as Japan, this is likely to reach 2:1 – that’s two older persons for every one under 15 years old in the population. The percentage of world population aged 65 and over only increased from 5.2% in 1950 to 6.9% in 2000, but higher rises are notable in Europe (14.7% in 2000) and Japan where it increased from 4.9% in 1950 to 17.2% in 2000. And this trend is set to increase for the world as a whole – the number of older people will grow from 6.9% of the population in 2000 to a projected 19.3% in 2050.

Assuming the world’s population at seven billion, this 12.4% increase in older people represents approximately 868 million people. Of course, not all of these people will drive, but imagine designing a vehicle that will increase the likelihood of these individuals being able to continue to drive for 10, 20 or even 30 years?

Of course some have already recognised this emerging market as an attractive one, and one to ignore at their peril. The ‘age suit’ used by one manufacturer simulates some of the impairments seen more frequently in older people with a view to testing the usability of their cars. But, their intention is to make improvements to cars that are a benefit to all their drivers, as far as possible regardless of age or disability.

The design changes required are often subtle, but will, it is considered, contribute to a general reduction in the frequency of accidents and an increase in the average age of active drivers.

Design solutions may come from the most unlikely sources too. It has been argued that left-sided driving is safer for older people given the likelihood of their having visual attention deficits on the left side and the need at intersections to watch out for vehicles approaching on the nearside lane.

Even if we cannot change the laws of the land, is there something for car manufacturers to learn here about design for the older driver?


Our approach typically engages completely in participatory research, which involves testing ergonomics of car designs with older and disabled people, with, for example, account taken of different mobility, hearing and dexterity impairments. Recommendations emerging from this could help designers compensate for age-related decline, i.e.  in physical design – entry/exit, seating, view span, etc. Other areas of research might include development of the ‘active’ rather than passive dashboard – with a wider range of audible and visual prompts or warnings, offering mirror and rear views health monitoring via sensors for movement, respiration, heartbeat, etc., via the steering wheel, gearstick and seat.

Addressing future needs

At a recent conference in the UK, the DVLA suggested that GPs are reluctant to remove driving licenses from individuals even when they realise they are probably no longer fit to drive, due to the devastating psychological impact that this can have on an individual. After all, being able to drive is significantly related to factors such as self esteem, independence, motivation, depression, etc. If car manufacturers can make a significant contribution to the ability of individuals to drive for longer then the impact goes beyond the commercial benefit to car manufacturers, but also may have societal and psychological benefits.

Coventry University has, alongside vehicle manufacturers, recognised the significance of two global challenges that face our society currently and as such created the ‘Low Carbon Vehicle’ and ‘Ageing Society Grand Challenge Initiatives’ to address the needs. This enables the research teams to work with forward thinking car manufacturers to ensure they are leading the market when it comes to designing cars for our future drivers.

Designing traditional cars to adapt to this new emerging market is fraught with constraints. However, if we are able to ‘design in’ such features when developing new low carbon vehicles the cost efficiencies and consumer benefits should prove very attractive to those who share this vision.

Coventry University