DONINGTON PARK, England - Fiat Auto will launch a mainstream model next year with an option tailored for elderly and disabled drivers.
The 'Safe and Easy' option will be available throughout Fiat's European model range by about 2006. It will then be rolled out to other world markets.
The move is in response to the demands of an aging European population. Forty percent of people in Europe will be more than 65 years old by 2020, according to demographic predictions.
Details of Safe and Easy are still confidential but features will include a driver's seat that pivots and easy-to-reach electronic devices.
In addition to the elderly and disabled, Safe and Easy is expected to appeal to pregnant women and young learner drivers - indeed anyone who finds conventional controls and cabin layouts awkward.
Fiat SpA CEO Paolo Cantarella said mobility should be 'a dimension of everyone's life ... and a fundamental precondition for the economic and cultural development of modern society.'
Cantarella spoke at a Fiat-sponsored European mobility conference at Donington Park in the English midlands.
The Safe and Easy initiative is an extension of Fiat's Autonomy program, introduced in 1994. Autonomy, which promotes facilities for the disabled, was initiated by Cantarella when he was managing director of Fiat Auto.
'The elderly and disabled are an important part of our customer base,' said Cantarella, 'and they have a right to have their mobility demands met. The fact that this involves developing special instruments and services does not, and should not, concern them.'
Cantarella said there were 8.6 million disabled people in the UK alone, representing 14 percent of the population.
'Eighty-five percent of these were not born disabled but became so later in life through accident or illness,' he said.
In the future, all new Fiat brand models will be designed to incorporate Safe and Easy, said Giuseppe Carretto, Fiat Auto's product director, disability platforms.
The option will come as a complete factory package and will be 'affordable,' said Carretto. But he could not specify the cost or say on which vehicle it would be introduced.
Fiat has spent $5 million so far on the program.
The Lancia and Alfa Romeo brands will not be included in the Safe and Easy progam because additional technical research would triple the cost, said Carretto. Covering the Fiat range will be cost effective because the brand accounts for 90 percent of Fiat Auto sales.