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Science & Technology

In Spite Of Marketing, Older People Driven To Cars

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The American car industry is having a love affair with older drivers, but it's secret. That's what NPR's Ina Jaffe discovered at the LA Auto Show, which opened yesterday. Ina covers aging and joins us from time to time for a conversation we call One In Five for the one fifth of Americans who'll be 65 years old or more in just 15 years. She's at the LA Auto Show as we speak. Ina, thanks for being with us. What have you seen?

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Hi, Scott. Well, (laughter) you know, I'm not really much of a car person, but you can relate to that. And so I'm seeing lots of cars in different sizes and shapes and colors, and they're all very, very shiny. Really, you could put on sunglasses.

SIMON: At last, an auto reporter I understand. But yes, go ahead.

JAFFE: (Laughter) I knew you would. And - but that's why I am here with our colleague Sonari Glinton, who covers the auto industry for NPR. And he's helping me see a little deeper.

SIMON: Sonari, thanks for being with us.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Hello. I'm the auto reporter that you won't understand (laughter).

SIMON: No, no, no. I always understand you, my friend. You make it comprehensible. You know, we see car ads, and it's usually compelling young people dashing and zooming around lower Manhattan or up the California coast. You wouldn't get the idea that car manufacturers were much interested in older adults, but are they?

GLINTON: I mean, they should be because, you know, people who are over 55 account for about 40 percent of new car sales, and what we're really talking about are baby boomers. And baby boomers are the past, present and future of the auto industry because if you're 55, you've still got, you know, a couple two, three cars left in you. And you're probably a high earner, so you can do more.

JAFFE: And you know, Scott, you're right. You don't see these drivers in car commercials, and we wanted to know why. So we asked Jeremy Anwyl. He's a former car executive who's now an independent consultant to the industry, and his answer boils down to ageism, including the kind we've all internalized.

JEREMY ANWYL: Nobody wants to be known as kind of an old person's car company. It's kind of the marketing kiss of death because consumers don't want to buy an old person's car. It's, like, who would? And yet, older buyers have very specific needs. And I think a challenge for a car company is - how do you, one, design a car that meets those needs and then market it in a way that doesn't actually alienate the very people you're trying to appeal to?

SIMON: Ina, what does he mean by specific needs for older drivers?

JAFFE: Well, we've seen a lot of catering to that as we've looked around this show, and some of it is deceptively simple. For example, even extending the width of a door a couple of inches and adjusting the height of the seat, it can make it a lot easier for an older person with arthritis to get in and out of the car. But, you know, the same feature can also help out a young woman wearing a pencil skirt and high heels. So this is why designers, and not just the ones in the car industry, call this approach universal design. What helps older people helps a lot of other people, too.

SIMON: But Sonari, what about all the high-tech stuff that can madden people when beeps that they don't understand go off?

GLINTON: Well, I mean, they do a lot of things to keep us safe, so if you think of, like, all the cool stuff that are in cars, they allow for older drivers to sort of stay in the car more. So if you think of backup cameras and you have a hard time turning your neck, that's a thing - lane assist, which keeps you in your lane; automated parking. There's sonar on the front of many cars that not only can tell you what's ahead of your car, but what's two cars ahead. All these things that help older people also make it just easier for any individual to drive.

SIMON: Will older drivers be comfortable using it, or do they have to get acclimated?

GLINTON: This is a real problem. Rebecca Lindland - she's a senior analyst with the Kelley Blue Book - she's been driving her mother around who's about 82 years old, and what she says is really important. It's that all those bells and whistles can be a problem for some older drivers.

REBECCA LINDLAND: If we're driving and I have to swerve around, the car starts beeping. And she's, like - what is that noise? What is going on there? And so you have to educate them on the warning signals that they're going to receive as they're driving or as they're a passenger because, otherwise, it's just a bunch of bells and whistles. And they don't always know what it means.

JAFFE: And you know, Scott, there is a huge incentive for older people to become used to this technology. It's got the potential to make it so much safer for them to drive. It could delay that day where their kids try to make them give up the keys to the car.

SIMON: Ina Jaffe covers aging. Sonari Glinton covers the auto industry for NPR. They're both at the LA Auto Show. Thanks very much for joining us. We should do this again. I learned a lot.

JAFFE: (Laughter) Thanks, Scott.

GLINTON: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.