How I pattern-match this post:

"Here is an unsolved problem from a domain I hold no expertise in. The fact it is not solved suggests that not enough effort is being applied to it. More effort should be applied to it. I am somehow more clever than the people in this domain for noticing this. After all, how hard could it be?"

Experience teaches me that the base rate for holding and expressing this sentiment, and being correct about it, is incredibly low.

That was why I made this post. My purpose is not to solve the cup-holder problem, but to ask whether such mistakes exist.

Designing a car is such a complicated process that there are many ways things could fall through the cracks. Such as final approval for designs being given in Japan or Europe, where people perhaps don't value cup-holders as highly.

0John_Maxwell7yTell that to MetaMed.
6mwengler7yI submit to you the iPhone. Developed by a company that had never built a cellphone or any other kind of phone for that matter before. Developed in to an industry that spent billions every year thrashing about trying (it thought) EVERYTHING to see how to build a phone that would exploit data in a way which would compel all those who saw it to want one if not actually buy it. Apple didn't do anything that it wouldn't have been easier for a larger more expert cell phone maker (Nokia, Motorola leap to mind) to do. And the iPhone blasted it out of the park and completely defined the current generation of smart phones virtually immediately upon its becoming available. Perhaps the rate for being correct is low, but the times it is correct are powerful. The idea that automakers are not as "stupid" about some design assumptions as the collective entrenched cell phone makers prior to the iPhone were, how likely does that seem? My experience teaches me I would be shocked if it weren't at least as true with automakers as it is with cell phone companies. Automaking is an even harder field for a newbie to come in to, but they do manage it once in a while.

The cup-holder paradox

by PhilGoetz 2 min read26th Mar 201379 comments


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,, 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?