Is that available with the Luddite package?

Automotive News | March 15, 2013 - 2:59 pm EST

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This month the iconic British motoring series Top Gear stumbled into a fantastic idea for automakers to pursue on future vehicles.

The Luddite trim level.

The comedy show's presenters argued -- quite reasonably -- that automobiles stuffed with modern electronic cabin gadgets had grown too complex for an aging population whose eyesight and manual dexterity was in natural decline.

Miniature joystick controllers, center stack touchscreen climate controls, phone-based Bluetooth navigation systems, even thinly padded seating -- all were noted as symptoms of vehicles designed by the young, for the young, and without regard for the technologically challenged.

Their solution, for comic effect, was to transform an already-ugly Fiat Multipla into the functional equivalent of a padded nursing home sitting room.

It was funny TV, but the underlying premise is not without some merit.

According to the Federal Office of Highway Policy Information, about 43 percent of the nation's 212 million licensed drivers in 2010 were over 50 years of age, and a quarter of all drivers were over 60. Almost 23 million licensed drivers were 70 or above, and 3.4 million were over the age of 85.

Older drivers buy cars, but most have little use for six screens of performance data or touchscreen climate controls. In fact, some undoubtedly feel overwhelmed or intimidated at the complexity of current cabin design, even as those designs appeal to younger purchasers.

Older buyers may be more attracted to a trim level that offers extra comfortable seating paired with familiar, analog-based control settings -- what normal people would call knobs.

These are broad generalizations, of course. There are plenty of people over the age of 50 who are quite comfortable with technology and embrace its advantages. But I would argue that there are lots of automobiles aimed at the tech-savvy buyer right now, and far too few that place basic automotive function over form.

The Luddites, a 19th century collection of workers and others in England who railed against industrialization, were unsuccessful in their bid to slow modernity.

But simplified yet luxurious automotive trim levels aimed at their modern equivalents might find success in serving a population that is too often ignored.

The Fiat Multipla: Retrofitted by Top Gear into the functional equivalent of a padded nursing home sitting room.

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