Among the many new innovations in computerized vehicles, including driverless cars, displayed at the Intelligent Transport Systems conference in Detroit this week, Ford Motor Company is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its "age suit."

Age suit special features

  • It uses gloves that reduce the sense of touch, and a motorized glove to mimic hand tremors
  • Sound-deadening headphones places limits on hearing
  • Goggles that simulate different visual impairments such as glaucoma and colour distortion
  • Extra weight placed on foot recreates challenges of walking
  • Knee braces limit flexibility
  • Mid-section brace restricts movement, making it harder to bend at waist and harder to get in and out of vehicles
  • Restraint device on elbows limits arm mobility
  • Neck brace increases difficulty in neck rotation

The auto company is designing cars for an aging population by using specialized suits to make anyone's body feel 20 to 40 years older. The custom-made suit was first developed in the 1990s.

The wearable items add about 14 kilograms and simulate neck stiffness, joint pain, back problems and various eye conditions — issues taken into consideration by ergonomics engineers while conceptualizing new vehicles.  

"It really does give you an appreciation of some of the limitations," said Nadia Preston, a Ford ergonomics engineer who has worn the suit. "I found just taking simple steps was a challenge, getting in and out of the vehicle."

She said the third-generation suit helps designers understand the needs of an aging population, while the designs benefit everyone.

"Nobody ever complains the gauges are too large or 'Wow this is too easy to read,'" she said. "It's going to serve all walks of life."

John Piruzza and his wife Giuseppa are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with a new Ford Lincoln, and said when shopping for a new car at their age, certain features become a priority.

"If you drive long distances, you have to have a nice comfortable car," said Piruzza. "You open up the door, it's nice and heavy, that tells you the car is built solid."

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The CBC's Lisa Xing tries on a special glove that mimics hand tremors. (CBC )

These are the same issues Scott Ohler, a sales manager at Performance Ford Lincoln in Windsor, said concern older customers.

"Usually they'll come in with a complaint about a vehicle they currently have—too low to the ground, hard time getting out, we'll use that as a point of reference and look to make recommendations on what they're driving currently," said Ohler.

Each detail of the cars, including the placement of handles and design of the steering wheel, is carefully considered.

Special suit to understand pregnant women

Ford also uses what it calls the "empathy belly," another suit that helps engineers understand the limitations pregnant women experience in their third trimester.

It also adds 14 kilograms and gives the person wearing it the appearance of being pregnant, while limiting their mobility and comfort.

CBC Windsor's Lisa Xing give the suit a try. Check out our video as she takes us through the experience.