Senior citizens find their voice with nav systems

Senior citizens and driving make for an interesting topic because there are so many of them—79 million Baby Boomers—in our midst. Boomers are turning into card-carrying senior citizens at the rate of about 10,000 per day, and they’re going to keep on driving.

Swing through any airport terminal and you’ll note that seniors are comfortably using technology in the form of laptops, iPads, and smartphones. But what about in their cars? How are they faring with the telematics?

It’s an important consideration because we’re talking about roughly a quarter of the population.

Seniors are as interested as all drivers in finding directions and the location of the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts or their friends’ new condo. What happens when they try to input the request on the vehicle’s system?


The folks at Agero—the Medford international provider of connected vehicle services for the automotive, insurance, and aftermarket industries—did some research to see if in-vehicle speech recognition technologies could mitigate driver distraction. Two test groups were compared, seniors (65- to 75-year-olds) and GenY (18- 30- yearolds) on a closed road course at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in Blacksburg, Va.

You might assume that the young group, having grown up with technology, would have little problem using the test’s variants— an aftermarket navigation system or in-vehicle speech technology both with and without a display screen. And you’d be correct.

While driving at speeds up to 45 miles per hour, the participants entered addresses and other destinations, such as points of interest (POIs) and categories (coffee shops), on the three systems:

1. a unit where the driver talked and the system talked back (an Agero production unit);

2. a unit where the driver talked and the system responded with talk and some text on the screen (a pre-production prototype);

3. and an aftermarket unit that required users to manually enter destinations on the small screen.

In test No. 3, using the aftermarket navigation unit, senior drivers were six times more likely to veer out of their lanes than the younger group.


However, in tests 1 and 2, seniors improved dramatically, nearly tying the younger group.

Another test showed driver detection of peripheral sight signals while attempting to download information.

Using the aftermarket device while driving, GenY drivers detected 95 percent of peripheral signals versus 74 percent for the seniors. But with speech solutions introduced, the seniors were able to spot 94 percent of the signals.

“The use of speech interfaces helped senior drivers, improved their operation of the vehicle, and leveled the performance gap between the two generations,’’ says Tom Schalk, Agero vice president of voice technology.

The test subjects later rated the systems, saying which they’d like in their personal vehicles: 88 percent wanted the speech/text version, 75 percent liked speech-only, and only 8 percent preferred the aftermarket portable nav unit. (Obviously you could vote for more than one.)

The research is relevant because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is working on guidelines for these devices.

Schalk explains why the combo of speech and text wins out. “Simply glancing at a list, and making a selection, is simpler [for the driver] than listening to a cumbersome reading of that list. If something that solves a need proves to be easy, quick, and reliable, it’s human nature to use it again, thus making the safer technology more likely to be widely adopted.’’


One of my weekly pleasures is stopping by Dick Theriault’s North Shore Performance shop in Ipswich where he’s painstakingly rebuilding a 1957 Chevrolet pickup truck from the frame up. Theriault, the automotive version of a medical specialist, limits his practice to “older Detroit iron.’’ Translated, that turns out to be a steady stream of special interest and show cars, the kind that win trophies at local cruise nights. The topic came up of how today’s trucks and particularly SUVs aren’t nearly as tough as those from the past few decades.


That chat came to mind upon hearing the news that the all-new 2013 Nissan Pathfinder is just now coming to market. The original Pathfinders were body-on-frame vehicles, known for ruggedness and towing capability. The new one— like most of its competitors—is much more carlike, of unibody construction, lighter, and more fuel efficient. It also looks more like a modern version of the station wagon and is filled with creature comforts. In other words, it’s a far cry from the basic- but-tough ’57 Chevy pickup but it’s “what our customers are asking for,’’ according to Tom Smith, Nissan’s director of marketing for the Pathfinder.

A lot of those old American classic cars had Mag (for magnesium) wheels. Now GM is testing a thermal-forming process and corrosion resistance treatment for lightweight magnesium sheet metal as an alternative to steel and aluminum for body components. Magnesium weighs 33 percent less than aluminum and 75 percent less than steel. “Using these high-strength, lightweight materials is one of the most effective ways to improve vehicle fuel economy and driving performance,’’ says Jon Lauchner, GM chief technology officer.

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