More than 46 million Americans are over the age of 65. (By 2060, that number is expected to double.) Meanwhile, in Europe, more than a quarter of the continent’s population has already reached what some British folks like to call “the third age.”
In the 1990s, Ford Motor Company saw this coming: As demographics changed, so too would the wants and desires of most car-buyers. In other words, Ford would have to start making vehicles that were more suitable for older drivers.
There was just one problem. “The majority of engineers and designers were—and still are—young people who find it difficult to imagine living with some of the limitations older drivers face,” Mike Bradley, a former ergonomics researcher at Ford, told the Institution of Engineering and Technology.
The car manufacturer’s solution? A bodysuit that puts young designers inside the skin of older drivers.
Developed by the Transport Technology and Ergonomics Centre (Ergonomics and Safety Research Unit) at England's Loughborough University, the Third Age Simulation Suit is said to add 30 years to anybody who wears it. A heavy vest simulates a weakened back. A neck brace hinders head movement. Joints are stiffened, inflexible gloves mimic arthritis, and a small electrical device causes uncontrollable trembles. It also comes with noise-dampening earphones and glasses that distort eyesight, mimicking the symptoms of glaucoma and cataracts.
“It’s really about inclusive design,” Katie Allanson, an ergonomist at Ford, recently told Chris Zelkovich of The Globe and Mail. “If you’re an able-bodied person, you don’t think about these issues—simple things like getting in and out of the vehicle and being able to grab the door handle.” The gloves, for example, can make it more difficult to adjust the radio. The noise-reducing headphones can muffle the chimes of the vehicle’s alert system. The goggles can reveal just how bad a windshield's glare may be.
Indeed, for many designers, donning the suit can be illuminating—and it has led to changes, big and small: improved seat belts that are easier to find and fasten; new alert systems that allow drivers to know when they’re drifting out of the lane; wider and taller front doors; easier-to-open trunks; and even the near-ubiquitous rear view camera. The first vehicle to benefit from designers wearing the garment? The Ford Focus.
You can view a Third Age Simulation Suit in the design section of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Scotland.