- - Thursday, July 12, 2012

Getting into the Chevrolet Equinox is so easy, its owners may never notice. The small crossover’s narrow rocker panels require minimal reach to step over, and its seat height requires minimal bending. Equinox’s ease of entry is just one example of Chevrolet’s use of universal design, an approach that makes products of all kinds work for as many people as possible.

Consumers experience universal design every day, from sidewalk ramps to lever-style door handles. For most people, universal design adds convenience, but for people with limited range of motion, it can be a difference maker. A rear vision camera, programmable liftgate and easy-to-use touch screen controls are examples of Equinox’s ease-of-use features.

Ease of use is increasingly important to car design as automakers adapt to changing consumer demographics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 65-and-older population is projected to grow to more than 71 million by 2030, and will account for 20 percent of the nation’s citizenry. That means more car buyers will be dealing with age-related issues that affect range of motion, eyesight, hearing, reflexes and cognition - issues that General Motors has studied in depth and has already begun to address in many of its vehicles such as the Equinox.

“We never design vehicles specifically for older consumers, but we increasingly integrate design solutions that work for all users, regardless of age,” said Carl Wellborn, senior staff engineer and project manager, GM Design and Technology Fusion. “Designs that make life easier for older users also work for younger users. Universal design is the key to unlocking usability solutions and implementing them successfully.”

Wellborn presented GM’s findings on increasing product value for an aging global market at the American Occupational Therapy Association’s national convention last year. The research was based on dozens of interviews with consumers who ranged in age from 21 to 65 and older.

“We are thrilled that GM is interested in better understanding the unique needs of aging drivers,” said Elin Schold Davis, project coordinator of the Older Driver Initiative at the American Occupational Therapy Association in Bethesda, Md. “We are a car-dependent nation and want to maintain our driving independence as long as we can. Vehicles that use universal designs can make it easier and safer for people to have and enjoy personal transportation well into old age.”

For automakers, the rising number of older car buyers is impossible to ignore, because Baby Boomers, the generation now reaching retirement age, buy the most new vehicles. According to a recent study from J.D. Power and AARP, people ages 50 and older now buy more than six of every 10 new vehicles sold - up 39 percent since 2001.

“Boomers want vehicles that help them maintain their vitality by adapting to their needs, rather than the other way around,” said Matt Thornhill, founder and president of the Boomer Project, a marketing research firm in Richmond, Va. “If a car screams that it was designed ‘for old people,’ Boomers will hate it and so will younger buyers. Boomers want vehicle designs that reflect their youthful vitality and aspirations, even if they are dealing with age-related issues.”

One of the reasons why operating a vehicle becomes more difficult with age is diminished range of motion. Equinox’s blind spot mirrors and wraparound rear side glass can be useful to drivers, regardless of their age, who may have difficulty looking over their shoulder when making a lane change. In addition, the crossover’s rear-vision camera, standard on 2013 Equinox LT and LTZ models, helps all drivers identify objects behind the vehicle when backing up.

Equinox’s rear programmable power liftgate, standard on LTZ and available on 2LT, also helps users of any age who have limited range of motion, but also is convenient for anyone whose hands are full.

Another example of Equinox’s universal design advantages is its segment-leading, multi-flex rear seat that allows parents to move the rear seat closer for easier and safer access to their children. The additional leg room afforded by the multi-flex rear seat allows up to five people to sit comfortably in the vehicle.

Also in easy reach are Equinox’s center stack radio controls, with redundant controls on the steering wheel that help drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

Additionally, Equinox’s MyLink infotainment system, standard on 2013 LT and LTZ models, has a seven-inch color touch screen display with easy-to-understand icons. The system allows users to integrate their Bluetooth-paired smartphone with their vehicle so they can stow their phone and safely use the hands-free voice control system to listen to music files and place calls to stored contacts. Users also can access their mobile phone book on the display.

“Simple interfaces and large, easy-to-understand controls like those in the Equinox are hallmarks of universal design,” said Eero Laansoo, human factors engineer, GM Design Quality Integration. “Having intuitively grouped controls that are easy to reach and easy to see day or night is particularly beneficial for drivers who suffer from age-related issues like arthritis and diminished vision, but will be appreciated by drivers of all ages.”

Founded in 1911 in Detroit, Chevrolet is now one of the world’s largest car brands, doing business in more than 140 countries and selling more than 4 million cars and trucks a year. Chevrolet provides customers with fuel-efficient vehicles that feature spirited performance, expressive design, and high quality. More information on Chevrolet models can be found at www.chevrolet.com.