All-New Ford Focus – Developed for Everyone

Third Age SuitMERKENICH, Germany - What does a middle-aged male engineer know about the difficulties of driving a car while heavily pregnant or suffering from arthritis? In the case of Clemens Marek, quite a lot…

Based in Ford’s Merkenich Technical Centre, Marek is an ergonomics supervisor working on the all-new Focus. He gladly admits that, like most young people, he used to think that he could develop a vehicle for everyone, that he understood the needs of the entire population. That is, until he put on Ford's Third Age Suit for the first time.

"It was a real eye-opener," admits Marek. "Like most people, when I first put it on I felt I wanted to prove that it didn’t affect me, that it’s really not that bad. But after wearing it for an hour, it really hits home. It’s stressful, tiring and a bit tedious. In fact, it’s a bit scary because it gives you a glimpse of what it will be like when you get older, but then it feels great when you take it off!

The Third Age Suit was developed by Ford to enable ergonomics engineers to experience the effects of the aging process and help them develop vehicles for customers who could be 30 years older than them.

Third Age SuitThe suit looks like a cross between a bee-keper's protective gear and a high-tech astronaut suit. It is made from materials that add bulk and restrict movement in areas such as the knees, elbows, stomach and back. Heavy, adjustable metal braces restrict movement on every joint, and a larger brace around the neck limits head movement.

The weight of the suit means the wearer tires much more quickly than usual. The wearer also puts on two pairs of rubber gloves to limit the sensation of touch. Over the top of these go specially-designed finger gloves which restrict the movement of the fingers. There are also six pairs of glasses, simulating a variety of sight problems, such as cataracts or tunnel vision. Braces on the feet add weight and restrict movement. These are used to test foot swing clearance.

“The brace around your neck is very noticeable. It’s only when you put that on that you realise quite how much you turn your head when driving. It makes you use your mirrors a lot more and adapt your driving style. And the foot brace is interesting for me as I have such large feet. I sometimes have trouble getting my feet into a car anyway, so with these braces on it can be almost impossible. The most noticeable aspect though is the weight. Every movement you make is more difficult and more tiring.”

Suit Has Been Used for Ages

The first-generation Focus was the first Ford vehicle to benefit from extensive use of the suit. Designers and engineers developed the vehicle with more headroom than any other vehicle in its class, making it simpler to get in and out, and also designed a class-leading "H-point" – the point at which the hips swivel – also making getting in and out of the vehicle much easier.

"The suit has completely changed the way we work. It makes us look at certain things a lot more closely. And what we notice now is that after all these years of wearing the suit, we don’t need to put it on so often. We automatically think of older people when developing vehicles now, we understand some of the difficulties that can come with old age and we think about these problems from the outset.”

Marek and his team are involved from the very beginning of the vehicle development process. Using the suit they carry out critical tests with the vehicle parked indoors. They don’t take it out on the road as this is deemed too dangerous, unless the wearer has a very good understanding of how the suit will limit their abilities. They touch every control, attempt reversing manoeuvres, ensure that one button can be pressed without another being accidentally touched, and they make sure they can get in and out without too much trouble.

“We tend not to wear the suit for more than an hour at a time because it is just too tiring. When you eventually take it off, it feels like you have regained 30 years. I often tell people that rather than the suit adding 30 years to you when you put it on, it’s like you become 30 years younger when you take it off.

"A lot of people say they hope they never feel that restricted when they are old. Of course, it all depends on the person, their strength, their fitness, not everyone will get like that. Old age affects everyone differently, but the suit gives us an idea and a basis to work with to help improve the usability of our vehicles for older customers.”

The team's discomfort has not been for nothing. In the all-new Focus the third age suit has helped ensure optimum comfort and usability for customers of all ages.

“One of the main tests we used the suit for on the all-new Focus was finding the best location for the hazard warning indicator switch. We wanted to make sure that an elderly driver could press it without accidentally activating the door lock switch just beside it. And we also used the gloves to help us test the buttons on the entertainment system. It really is incredible what the suit makes you consider, it has completely changed the way we work.”

Pregnancy Suit

The Third Age Suit is not the only tool in the Ford Ergonomics Team's armoury, they also regularly make use of a Pregnancy Suit. This specially-designed garment allows them to experience first-hand how pregnancy can affect drivers.

It consists of two 2kg weights to simulate the weight of the baby, a ‘bladder’ containing 2kg of water, a cushion just above the bladder to simulate the baby’s head, and a strap to go around the lungs which restricts breathing.

The Pregnancy Suit is mainly used to check the location of the seat belts, but it is also used for ingress/egress tests. It is designed to help the engineers better understand the issues pregnant women face when driving a vehicle, such as awkwardness in body movements, postural changes, shifts in centre of gravity and limitations in reach.

“I don’t tend to wear the ‘stomach’ myself,” explains Marek. “I’m 6’4”, so I’m not really the same size as your average pregnant woman. We try to find engineers who are closer to the average size of a woman otherwise the tests would be inaccurate. I have tried it though. The bladder really makes you feel like you need to keep your equilibrium when walking and sitting and, like the third age suit, it is amazing how quickly it becomes tiring.”

With the all-new Focus being sold around the world to people of all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities, designing a vehicle to suit everyone’s needs is a difficult task. With tools such as the Third Age Suit and Pregnancy Suit, Ford engineers are able to gain an understanding, and some first-hand experience, of the needs of a far larger proportion of the world’s population.