The cup-holder paradox

by PhilGoetz 7y26th Mar 201379 comments

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I'm shopping for a car, and I've spent many hours this past month reading user reviews of cars. There are seven things American car buyers have cared and complained about consistently for at least the past ten years.  In roughly decreasing importance:

  • Performance
  • Gas mileage
  • Frequency and expense of repairs
  • Smoothness of ride
  • Exterior and interior styling
  • Cup-holders
  • Cargo space

Six of these things are complicated design trade-offs. For a good design, increasing any one of them makes most of the other five take a hit.

Cup-holders are not a complicated design trade-off. This should be a solved problem: Put two large, sturdy cup-holders somewhere accessible from the driver's seat. There is nothing to be gained from saving a few centimeters on cup-holder space that could be worth the millions of buyers who will walk away from a $50,000 car because they don't like its cup-holders.

Seriously, build the cup-holders first and design the rest of the interior around them. They're that important.

In the 1970s, no one had cup-holders or knew that they needed them. Things began changing in the 1980s, perhaps due to the expansion of Starbucks, perhaps due to the sudden increase in commute lengths. Today I like to have at least two and preferably three drinks with me for my 1-hour morning commute: A hot coffee to wake up, cold water for when I burn myself with the coffee, and a soda or tea for variety.

But car manufacturers were glacially slow to respond. I've been looking at used Jaguar XJs. These cars originally cost about $100,000 in today's money. Their owners complained continually about the cheap tiny plastic folding cup-holders that couldn't hold cups. They posted do-it-yourself fixes in online forums. Jaguar didn't even begin to address this until 2004, at least fifteen years into the cup-holder crisis, when they made the cup-holders slightly (but not much) less-crappy, and large enough to hold a small coffee (but not a medium).

Most new cars today finally have two cup-holders up front, and the collapsible cup-holders that enraged drivers for years by (predictably) collapsing are finally gone, but many cup-holders still aren't large enough to hold a Starbucks venti.

What the cup-holder paradox implies is that there are many multi-billion dollar care companies that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on product development every year without ever assigning a single summer intern to take one day to read some of the many thousands of user reviews available for free on cars.com, autotrader.com, and other websites. If they had, they'd have realized the depth of America's anger at shoddy cup-holders.

Or perhaps they read the reviews and dismiss them, because their customers are obviously morons who don't appreciate good auto design. Even today, auto manufacturers post photos of the interiors of all their new cars on their websites, but never in a dozen photos give you a clear view of the cup-holders, which makes me lean toward this view.

Or perhaps the cup-holders aren't even considered during design, but are added on at the last minute, because cars didn't used to have cup-holders at all and so that's not part of the design process. Perhaps automakers have internalized their process of producing and selling cars, and they can't conceive of adding a new element to that process, at least not until all the old automakers die out.

My priors say that it's more likely that I'm imagining the whole thing, that I selectively remember reviews complaining about cup-holders because of my own preferences, than that there has been a massive, systematic cognitive failure on the part of all the world's auto-makers, spanning 20 years, during which many of them somehow failed to observe, comprehend, or address this trivially-simple complaint of their customers, despite the billions of dollars at stake.

Am I?

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