Compensating for Errors With Cutting-Edge Technology

20 May 2021 Infrastructure

Many experts endorse the use and further development of assistance systems as a means of improving road safety for senior citizens. In addition to their many features and vehicle configuration options, these systems have the potential to compensate for age-related deficits and to reduce the frequency with which older drivers become involved in car accidents – or even cause them. However, technological support also protects senior citizens when they are using the road as pedestrians or cyclists.

Poorer vision, poorer hearing, slower reactions, and potential limitations to physical mobility – the physical conditions for safe road use do not usually improve with age. The reduction in performance brought about by biological aging processes and medical conditions is reflected in the increase in accident figures. Take Germany, for example: according to the Federal Statistical Office, “only” around 14 percent of all drivers involved in car accidents that resulted in personal injury in 2019 were aged 65 or over. However, in around 68 percent of the cases where such accidents involved older drivers, they were also the main perpetrators of the incident. Among car drivers aged 75 and over, this number was even higher, with three in every four having caused the accidents they were involved in. As explained in the “The Human Factor” chapter of this report, the most common driving errors among senior citizens were a failure to observe rights of way, mistakes when making a turn, turning around, reversing, entering traffic, and driving off, and errors in judging distances.
In addition to changes in driving behavior, such as avoiding roads and times with higher traffic volumes, unfavorable weather conditions, driving at dusk or in the dark, and adopting a slower and more careful driving style, as well as infrastructural measures, road safety for older drivers can be improved by equipping vehicles with assistance, information and comfort systems designed with senior citizens in mind. The approaches used to tackle driving-related changes in performance can be grouped roughly into the following categories: active and passive safety, operation, comfort and driving. However, there is a lot of overlap between these different categories, and it is often impossible to draw a clear line between individual features or aids.


Senior citizens are a very appealing target market to the automotive industry for several reasons: the number of senior citizens driving cars is increasing continually, they are willing to purchase vehicles that are “specially adapted” for them, so that they can maintain their own mobility, and they have significant purchasing power in many countries. While none of the big manufacturers currently offer models explicitly designated as “senior citizen cars,” this market is catered to by means of suitable designs combined with selected comfort and safety systems. The benefit of this approach is that it does not stigmatize particular vehicle models or users – in fact, its advantages benefit every age group.
When it comes to safety, direct and indirect visibility, driver assistance systems and passive safety elements all have an important role to play. The less a driver’s direct line of sight is obstructed by wide columns or windows that are too small, the less relevant any physical limitations in the upper body and cervical spine or restricted fields of vision will be. The windshield in particular needs to fulfill a wide range of criteria. Reflections of the dashboard and other vehicle components need to be kept to a minimum in a variety of lighting conditions through judicious positioning and choice of materials. The area covered by the windshield wipers needs to be configured such that there is no notable “widening” of the Acolumns when it rains, or especially in snow. The position of the seat in relation to the windshield and, in particular, the position of the rear view mirror and the sensor/camera systems often fitted in this area must be designed to ensure that the driver has a good view of traffic lights in every direction without having to strain their body, regardless of how they adjust their seat. Large mirrors that distort the image as little as possible enable drivers to notice the traffic behind them more quickly and help to compensate for restrictions in how far they can look over their shoulders, even if they are not a complete substitute for this extra perspective. The interior design of the vehicle must help to ensure that the driver’s view through the rear window via the rear view mirror is as unobstructed as possible.
A tidy cockpit, clear and legible instruments, and a simple, clearly structured user interface can help to make the driver’s life a lot easier, reducing the number of variables they need to consider and thus improving their safety and comfort. Displays and display elements must have a high-contrast design in all their lighting states. Numbers and other characters and symbols need to be of sufficient size and easy to read with even just a quick glance. While driving, it must be possible for the driver to operate the vehicle’s key functions, such as the light and wiper controls, heating and ventilation settings, and radio controls, via haptic feedback, i.e. without the need to look at them. Screen menus with one-button operation and touchscreens can quickly overwhelm the driver or cause a dangerous distraction.
The seriousness of this risk was reflected in a ruling made by the Higher Regional Court of Karlsruhe in spring 2020: it declared that touchscreens installed in vehicles, including those integrated by the manufacturer, were deemed in Germany to be electronic devices equivalent to smartphones, meaning that a driver is only permitted to operate them by hand if this can be done with “a brief glance at the device at an appropriate moment based on the road, traffic, visibility and weather conditions.” The ruling was based on an accident caused by a driver who, during a rain shower, had become significantly distracted when attempting to adjust the wind-shield wiper interval via a submenu of the central screen integrated into the vehicle. This ruling is particularly relevant in light of the fact that automotive manufacturers are increasingly installing sensor fields, sliders and screens in place of traditional buttons and switches, and even saving on lighting for some control elements. This is not an approach that is likely to make such systems easier to operate, especially for senior citizens. If safety-related functions are being relocated into touchscreen systems, a voice or gesture-operated system would doubtless be a better option for keeping distraction times to a minimum.
Unfortunately, however, one thing is clear from looking at the new vehicles being sold right now: each manufacturer installs operating systems based on their own concept, all of which seem to adhere to a clear internal logic, have a gimmick or two to set them apart from the competition, and can be operated easily enough following an in-depth exploration of their functions. But for drivers who don’t use their vehicle very often or switch between models from different manufacturers, the “intuitive operation” advertised by the manufacturer has its limits, especially in situations where the driver needs to act quickly. Voice commands and gestures also vary from one manufacturer to the next, and sometimes even within the same vehicle type if the vehicles have different infotainment systems. Clearly, safety always needs to be the top priority, regardless of the designer’s ambitions and all the ergonomic and aesthetic aspects that need to be taken into account.



When it comes to purchasing a vehicle, there are some markets in which senior citizens should be asking themselves what is the right car for them: Should they switch to an electric drive or stick with a combustion engine? And should they opt for a manual or an automatic transmission? In Germany, for example, there has been a rapid increase in the market share for new vehicles with automatic transmission. According to the German Automobile Trust (Deutsche Automobil Treuhand), it was over 55 percent in 2020, compared to just under 28 percent in 2010. However, this is nothing in comparison to the USA or Japan, where automatic vehicles account for around 90 percent of the market. It is safe to assume that manual transmissions will continue to lose their relevance in time – especially as many modern assistance systems only work in combination with automatic transmissions, and electric drives eliminate the need for gear shifting.
Many senior citizens in particular opt for an automatic transmission because removing the need to shift gears manually takes some of the stress out of driving and can also help them to compensate for health-related limitations. The key question is, are vehicles with automatic transmission less safe given that, unless the brake pedal is actuated, they will move when the engine is running, and is the risk of unintentional acceleration greater? After all, it is quite common to read reports about older drivers who lost control of their automatic vehicles because they got the brake and gas pedals mixed up, or put the vehicle into reverse by mistake. To prevent these kinds of operator errors and the often resulting reactions of panic, senior citizens should ideally have a driving instructor show them the features of an automatic transmission before buying such a car, or take driver training courses to help them practice dealing with extreme situations. In addition to this, experts also advise switching to an automatic transmission as early as possible in order to allow drivers to get used to these systems before their cognitive capacities diminish significantly as a result of aging. All in all, however, there are plenty of benefits to automatics, as they allow drivers to concentrate more on what is happening on the road.


In terms of driver assistance systems, those that offer the greatest potential benefits, especially for senior citizens, are the ones that provide assistance in complex and taxing traffic situations. These include intersection assistants, blind spot warning systems, lane change assistants, night vision systems and automated emergency braking systems, as well as GPS systems with up-to-date maps and clear visual and acoustic instructions. Road sign assistants, which use cameras to detect the local speed limit and display it on the dashboard, also help drivers to compensate to a certain extent for deficits in their attention, and provide an added sense of safety. Vehicle backup cameras and parking assistants can also make stressful situations more manageable, thus improving safety. Particularly at dusk and in the dark, intelligent lighting systems and high-beam assistants can partially help compensate for the reduced ability to see in twilight and darkness that comes with age, as they allow the driver to focus more on the road and less on the high beam controls. E-call systems, especially those with an additional service call-out function, can help to increase a driver’s overall sense of safety and reduce stress in accident and breakdown situations.
A 2019 study commissioned by the German Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt) took an in-depth look into the ways that driver assistance systems could help older drivers. The study also compiled information on the key age-related deficits that impact a person’s driving abilities and assigned them to specific, requested driver assistance functions, or to appropriate systems. At the same time, the BASt’s study also examined the factors that would help driver assistance systems to become widespread more quickly among senior citizens. The results showed that awareness of the various systems and, in particular, knowledge of their functions and limitations, were key factors here. A survey of the target demographic also identified factors that are preventing assistance systems from becoming widespread more quickly, including a fear of high repair costs in the event that a system malfunctions, and concerns over the lack of transparency from sistance systems. In the 65+ age group, 81 percent of men and 70 percent of women surveyed thought that the concept of assistance systems to aid drivers was either good or very good. By their own accounts, around 80 percent of the men in this age group and more than 60 percent of the women own vehicles that are equipped with assistance systems.


As recently as late 2020, DEKRA commissioned the market research and opinion polling company forsa to conduct a representative survey of around 2,000 randomly selected German motorists across all age groups on the topic of driver assistance systems. In the 65+ age group, 81 percent of men and 70 percent of women surveyed thought that the concept of assistance systems to aid drivers was either good or very good. By their own accounts, around 80 percent of the men in this age group and more than 60 percent of the women own vehicles that are equipped with assistance systems.
The usage of driver assistance systems differed significantly depending on the age and gender of those surveyed: older women aged 65 and over had less knowledge and experience of the systems listed in the survey than the average of all the motorists surveyed. By some distance, the system used most commonly by men and women aged 65 and over was the parking assistant (73 and 55 percent respectively), followed by high-beam/light assistant (42 and 29 percent), adaptive cruise con-trol (37 and 19 percent) and lane departure warning system (33 and 17 percent). Overall, however, these usage levels were much lower than those for the 18 to 44 and 45 to 64 age groups. The greatest difference was in the usage of blind spot warning and lane change assistant systems. In the 18 to 24 age group, 48 percent of those surveyed said that they had used such a system before, while only 22 percent of senior citizens made the same claim. The difference was less pronounced among the women included in the survey, though only 22 percent of the women in the younger age group had used this system, compared to 14 percent of older women.
The drivers were also asked which driver assistance systems they would consider an absolute must in their next car purchase, if money were no object. Among men and women aged 65 and over, the parking assistant once again topped this list (87 and 84 respectively), followed by adaptive cruise control (74 and 59), blind spot warning system/lane change assistant (72 and 75 percent), advance automated emergency braking system (71 and 60 percent), and lane departure warning system (60 and 46 percent).
The operation of the assistance systems and the way they are activated and deactivated varies depending on the vehicle model. Across every age group, 83 percent of those surveyed agreed that it was necessary and sensible to make sure that the way these systems are operated is as uniform and standardized as possible in all cars – just like the turn signal controls. This opinion was shared by 89 percent of the 65-and-over age group included in the survey, and 95 percent of those aged 75 and over.
The aim of the survey was not to establish the status quo for driver assistance systems in the German market, but rather to discover how much drivers knew about how assistance systems work and find out their wishes and expectations with regard to driver assistance. In this respect, the results of the survey clearly show that many people know nothing about assistance systems, and do not know what the names of the systems mean or which systems are actually installed in their own vehicles. Around 30 percent of those surveyed said that they did not have any assistance systems in their vehicles at all. It is difficult to reconcile this result with the information provided on the ages of the vehicles or even with general records of the cars registered on German roads. On the other hand, around ten percent of those surveyed said that they had experience of using exit warning systems and night vision assistants – systems that are currently only available in a very small number of vehicles. Overall, however, every age group thought that driver assistance systems of-fer great potential, and the drivers surveyed displayed a positive attitude toward considering such systems when buying their next vehicle.
In addition to the DEKRA survey conducted by forsa, there are also a number of other surveys and studies on this topic that have produced insightful results. For example, in its 2019 publication “Experiences of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems amongst Older Drivers,” the National Centre for Social Research in London also came to the conclusion that senior citizens are gener-ally open to the idea of driver assistance systems, but want them to be user-friendly and not too distracting. Senior citizens with multiple health limitations demonstrate greater levels of acceptance than those in full health. Furthermore, older drivers were of the opinion that the focus should be on systems that provide information acoustically rather than visually. At the same time, however, there was a fear of becoming “dependent” on an assistance system.
The results of an online survey of 1,328 persons aged 65 to 95, which were presented in September 2019 at the 11th International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicular Applications in Utrecht, also showed that there is good acceptance of driver assistance systems overall. However, acceptance levels for systems that actually intervene in the driving process were lower than for those that simply provide information. In this respect, it is notable that persons with a lower locus of control regarding the use of technology (in psychology, the locus of control is a person’s subjective perception as to whether their behavior in certain situations is under their own control or affected by external forces) tended to prefer automatically intervening systems, as informational systems represented an additional stress factor or distraction to them.


In addition to the operation of the vehicle itself, drivers also highly value the level of ease when getting into and out of the car, when loading and unloading, and the level of comfort during the journey. Doors that open wide, large door frames and a raised seating position – that match the user’s height – make it easier to get into and out of a vehicle. Interior handles in the top third of the A column or on the roof also provide an important aid. Furthermore, a high seating position also improves all-round visibility for the driver, which is an important safety consideration. Ergonomic seating design and user-friendly seat adjustment options, combined with suitable chassis suspension andshock absorption, play a key role in ensuring a comfortable driving experience, thus helping the driver to remain alert and focused for longer.
Loading and unloading can be made easier by ensuring that the trunk has no rear wall. The optimum height, on the other hand, depends on how tall the user is. Although keeping the distance between the backrest and the end of the trunk space small reduces the volume that can be loaded into the vehicle, it also means that even persons with limited strength or upper-body mobility can push heavy items right up against the backrest. For vehicles with larger trunks, “trunk organizer” systems or trunk bags offer a simple and useful cargo securing measure. The length and agility of the vehicle also play a role, especially for drivers who mainly use their vehicles in built-up areas with narrow streets and limited parking space.


Before buying a car, it is important to look into the aforementioned factors and test drive vehicles by a number of different manufacturers in order to determine one’s own personal preferences and come up with a list of priorities. Insurance companies, automotive associations, senior citizens’ associations and similar groups also conduct tests on how suitable current vehicle models are for use by older people, which can help drivers decide on the most useful criteria – or even the most suitable vehicle – for them. Even if someone has been driving the same brand of vehicle their entire life, that does not mean that the same manufacturer makes vehicles that are suitable for senior citizens. In order to remain both mobile and safe, it is important to be open to change.
Different manufacturers assign different levels of importance to the concept of designing vehicles with senior citizens in mind. Some manufacturers use “age simulation suits” when developing their vehicles. These suits, which are designed by gerontological experts, help young people to experience the physical limitations that come with aging. They simulate not only mechanical and haptic limitations, such as loss of strength, physical mobility and grip, but also deteriorations in eyesight, field of vision, hearing and coordination. These can be used to optimize common situations for senior citizens, such as operating a door handle, getting into and out of the vehicle, taking hold of and fastening the seat belt, turning the key in the ignition – or the significantly easier pressing of a starter button – and even the driving experience itself.