FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Nissan calls it an "aging suit," a cumbersome, strap-on outfit that gives young auto designers the feel of driving with a bulging belly, arthritic joints and shaky balance.
The suit — including goggles that distort color and mimic the effects of cataracts — is used to simulate the physical effects of aging as designers work to make future vehicles safer and more comfortable.
With the 65 and older population in the U.S. expected to double to 70 million — one in five people — by 2030, Nissan Motor Co. and other automakers are looking at safety and comfort design changes as a way to reach for baby boomers' wallets.
Drivers 65 and older, while not as accident-prone as the youngest drivers, are 16 percent more likely than adult drivers ages 25 to 64 to cause an accident, according to a 2007 report by the Rand Institute for Civil Justice.
Ford Motor Co. also has used what it calls a "Third Age" suit to simulate aging and now uses a virtual reality lab to evaluate vehicle ergonomics and clarity of drivers' views. At General Motors Corp., researchers are working on a high-tech windshield designed to enhance a driver's view.
Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab and the U.S. Department of Transportation's New England Transportation Center, said automakers have a "long way to go."
With a baby boomer turning 62 every 7 seconds, he said, the auto industry "has to take a new look at old age."
Engineers at the Nissan Technology Center outside Tokyo have been using their aging suit to research dashboard switch locations and angles, interior seating and exterior views.
"We are looking at future design," Nissan spokeswoman Julie Lawless said as an Associated Press reporter tried on the suit at the company's North America headquarters in Franklin. "It's really to look at the issues of restricted mobility. It stiffens your joints. It's adding about 11 pounds that people will put on as they go through life."
Nissan's suit literally puts you in an aging driver's shoes, with a raised front-toe design to test balance.
The suit limits motion — turning the neck and bending elbows, knees and ankles — which Lawless said is intended to be "much like arthritis." As intended, the goggles hinder driver visibility, both in glances at dashboard controls and outside the vehicle, particularly the mirrors.
Etsuhiro Watanabe, a design engineer at Nissan's technology center in Japan, said older drivers not only have a harder time getting in and out of seats but also have difficulty seeing writing on controls and distinguishing colors on navigation screens.
"It's not always practical to recruit older motorists for product research, so these special suits allow Nissan's engineers and designers to come up with solutions that make car use a safer and more positive experience," he said in an e-mail.
MIT's Coughlin said design is part of the challenge for automakers, but they must also educate drivers about using innovations like collision warning systems.
Coughlin said automakers' current financial crunch will hopefully make them pay more attention to the older driver, who is typically the "high-end buyer."
"The cars where they make their profit, the average age of the buyers is 50 and in some cases 60," he said.
Toyota Motor Corp. also is engineering its vehicles with an eye toward older drivers, but unlike Nissan, it's not showing off its behind-the-scenes design work.
"Unfortunately our parent company doesn't release a whole lot of that information," said Bill Kwong, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales USA, based in Torrance, Calif.
"There is a huge aging population in Japan also," he said. "I know they are studying it intently also."
Kwong said the No. 1 problem for aging drivers is "getting in and out of the vehicles," and buyers — at an added cost — can request seats that are electrically operated and rotate out.
Toyota already offers rearview cameras and sonar as options in some models to help drivers avoid collisions, but those add-on features are not aimed particularly at older drivers, Kwong said.
Nancy Thompson, an AARP spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., noted that features that add ease for seniors, such as keyless entry, "have begun to penetrate the general markets." She declined comment about the pace of automakers' design changes but said "it is important that cars become safer."
Baby boomers "have grown up expecting to walk out the door and be able to where they want to go," she said. "Until there is some alternative, they will want to drive."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.