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Better Ideas : Students Design Innovative Cars for Older Motorists

January 18, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

Someday--when their reflexes slow, their vision blurs and they find it harder to get in and out of a car--16 Pasadena students may reap the rewards of their special automotive designs for the elderly.

As participants in the advanced product design class at the Art Center College of Design, they tackled ways to enhance the safety, comfort and convenience of older drivers at the request of the U. S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Last week their solutions got rave reviews from a traffic safety official and safety experts from Ford and General Motors, who said the students contributed some special "ingenuity and free thinking" on geriatric problems.

The students presented their ideas for cars of the future at the college on Thursday.

Unobstructed View

Christopher Lacson, 27, sat in an upright seat and pulled a movable steering column close to his chest, bringing with it part of the instrument panel. This cleared the way for the driver to have an unobstructed view through the windshield and provided easy access to some instruments, while others remained stationary on another panel.

"Only the information you need is on the panels," said Robert Berger, 25, who was on Lacson's four-man team. "The average driver has been driving 30 or 40 years and doesn't want anything complicated."

The model also featured switches of different shapes, which would make it easier for the driver to identify them and keep his eyes on the road.

Brent Collins, 25, said a "smart card," the magnetic kind used by many banks and credit card companies, could activate a touch screen on the high-tech model car produced by his team. The screen, he said, would operate the car's climate control and radio and would notify the driver of any mechanical problems.

Collins' partner, Esther Levine, 25, showed how the driver's side of the front seat could pivot and hoist her as she got out of the car, "something older people prefer," she said.

"Keep everything high, at windshield level," advised Steve Petrushka, 23, whose model had two separate pods for instruments, one movable and one stationary.

Petrushka's team advocated a handlebar-type steering wheel with rotating grips for each hand.

"This gives the driver better means of controlling the car," he said.

Another team's design would give each driver a computer card with his individual needs

programmed into it, Don Jeffries, 45, explained. The card would activate the car's system, automatically adjusting for each driver such things as seat tilt, steering column incline and even preferred radio stations.

The models were in striking contrast to today's modern sports cars, with their low bucket seats and intricate, multi-color lighted control panels.

The students studied what one of them called "a sea of human factors," including vision, reaction time and strength, before designing their models.

After interviewing senior citizens, some of them in hospitals, the students said they learned that brilliantly lighted dashboards are confusing to most elderly drivers. Older people like to step down, not up, when they leave their cars, and can more easily handle small steering wheels, the students found.

Easy Visibility

Every design placed the most essential instruments--mainly the speedometer and fuel gauges--directly over the steering wheel and just below the windshield, where they could be seen easily.

All models had high seats that were easy to get in and out of, and many placed the most essential switches where the driver could reach them without having to take both hands off the steering wheel.

"We got our money's worth," said Bob Nicholson, director of the crash avoidance research division of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which financed the project through a $25,000 grant.

"They offer solutions we hadn't thought of to problems we knew we had," Nicholson said.

Nicholson said his agency will keep the designs on file, and representatives of the auto makers said they will share the students' ideas with their designers.

Aging Baby Boomers

The problems of older drivers, said Anthony Yanick, senior engineer for automotive safety for General Motors, are becoming a more pressing concern for auto companies as they begin designing cars for the growing market of aging customers.

"The baby boom is going to become a senior citizen boom in another decade," Yanick said. "Demographics are all going in that direction, so we need to go in that direction. I guess that's what we're getting geared for."

Yanick's conclusion, echoed by many of the students and their teacher, Ron Hill, was, "I can't honestly think of anything we can do to improve driving for older people that wouldn't benefit younger people."

Lauding the students' presentation, Yanick said, "There are things here I've never come across before."

"What worked out for older people worked out better for us," said Laurence Paolicelli, who at 22 is the youngest in the class.

Benefits to Industry

"Industry will benefit from this kind of thinking," said Lyman M. Forbes, Ford's manager of automotive safety. "Those who go out from here into industry will carry some of this with them."

Nicholson said the traffic safety agency chose the Art Center for its project because two years ago one of its classes studied automotive safety "and did a magnificent job."

Calling the college "one of the most knowledgeable institutions we have," Nicholson said the students offer "creativity and innovation, a kind of free thinking that brings fresh new concepts.

"Besides, once they graduate, we don't have access to them," he said. "This is the only school that we have come to with this sort of thing."

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