DETROIT – For some time, Ford Motor Co. engineers have donned specially designed suits to better understand the needs of two special customer groups – the “Third Age” elderly and pregnant women.

But the auto maker now is discovering that vehicle innovations and features designed to improve ergonomic accessibility for those groups is paying dividends for everybody else, too.

Eero Laansoo, an ergonomics engineer for Ford’s Human Factors Engineering, says at the 2007 Ward’s Auto Interiors Show here that many recent improvements derived from the study of the limitations of elderly people and pregnant women “end up benefiting everybody.”

Laansoo points to several now widely used features, such as adjustable pedals; cameras to assist in reversing; and strap-style, reach-through door handles, as improvements that help aging customers, in particular.

Laansoo demonstrates the features with a young person wearing Ford’s “Third-Age Suit,” which simulates arthritic joints, less muscle strength and restricted vision – and makes the wearer feel 30 years older.

The assistant shows how reach-through handles make it easier to open doors, cameras eliminate the need to look over one’s shoulder and a new “capless” fuel filler eliminates the struggle with the plastic gas cap when refueling.

While many of these features already are in use, the capless fuel filler, launched in the high-dollar Ford GT supercar, will hit mainstream Ford vehicles for the ’09 model year.

Laansoo says elderly drivers’ main difficulties are night vision, merging into fast-moving traffic, reading traffic signs, turning the head to reverse and reading the instrument panel.

Features to help the Third Agers, defined as those age 50 to 75, will only increase, he says, considering that someone in the U.S. turns age 50 every eight seconds.

He adds that aging drivers have difficulty with certain colors, including the blue that has become fashionable for instrument panels and ambient lighting.

Blue instrument lighting “looks aesthetically beautiful,” says Laansoo, but makes images less distinct for aging eyesight.

He says Ford also has an ongoing initiative to design clearer, less-complicated gauges and instrument panels, another improvement that goes beyond making life easier for the elderly.

“Nobody’s ever going to complain a dash is too easy to read or too simple to operate,” Laansoo says.

Meanwhile, another male assistant at Laansoo’s presentation dons the “Empathy Belly,” a strap-on vest with a bulging, lead-filled tummy that simulates 20 physical symptoms and effects of late-stage pregnancy.

Laansoo says Ford engineers developed new counterbalanced folding seats and power-assist features to make it easier for pregnant women to use a vehicle. Power-fold seats are another ergonomic improvement, he says, whose popularity has cut across all demographic groups.

“Power features are a clear benefit to all customers,” he says.

Laansoo also says it is a mistake to restrict ergonomic improvements developed for the elderly, for example, to specific vehicles thought to appeal only to the elderly.

He says there are numerous examples of current vehicles designed and earmarked for the “youth market,” such as the Honda Element and Toyota Scion, that in actuality have been adopted by Third Agers.

Says Laansoo: “You have to design around lifestyles, rather than life stages.”