February 2012

Ford Joins with Cambridge University to Study the Effects of Visual Impairments

According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people around the world suffer from some form of visual impairment. About 65 percent of these individuals are over age 50. For many automakers, visually impaired drivers may not be a priority or even a consideration – but at Ford, such WHO statistics are a source of motivation. With a rapidly aging population spurred by the baby boomer generation, the need for technology that assists with visual weakness is vital. Fortunately, Ford has teamed up with England’s prestigious Cambridge University to help acquire a better understanding of the issues and potential solutions at hand. 
As people age, their ability to see fine details decreases, especially in dark settings. This means that even with corrective lenses, it can be difficult to read the instrument cluster while driving. In addition, ocular conditions like cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which are prevalent among those over 50, can complicate matters on the road.
“Visual impairment is a natural part of ageing and affects many millions of people around the world,” said Angelika Engel, Ergonomics Attribute Specialist at Ford of Europe. “But because it is such a gradual process, it can often go unnoticed for many years. We tend to subconsciously look around the problem until it reaches a point where it is so severe that it can no longer be ignored. Even conditions like AMD and glaucoma can come on very slowly.”
In an attempt to alleviate the driving complications of gradual vision loss, Ford has turned to Cambridge’s Engineering Design Centre. The experts there have created a Vision Impairment Simulator to help automotive designers and engineers gain a better understanding of the impact of several types of visual impairments.
As software developer Sam Waller explains, the software “allows you to simulate visual impairments on any image. You load in an image, select a visual impairment and it lets you see the image as someone with that impairment would see it.” For example, if someone has age-related macular degeneration, they experience loss of central vision; the software simulates this blind spot so designers and engineers can have a better idea of what it’s like to have such an impairment. Waller notes that users can also load in other designs and instantly compare the effects, or they can change the impairment to see how a vehicle’s design stands up to different problems.
Ford is using the software to optimize the design of its instrument displays, so displays can be read safely and comfortably by as many drivers as possible. Engel notes that the software “is a big leap forward because it lets us simulate so many different impairments and levels of severity. For example, if we were to load in an image of a display and process it for red-green color blindness, you might instantly see that some numbers and letters become a lot harder to read. We can then change the design accordingly.”
Of course, many visual impairments restrict individuals from being able to operate a vehicle altogether; for those who have less severe degrees of vision loss, however, Ford is helping them stay independent and safe while on the road.