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Built for Comfort--Not for Speed
Munich, Germany
December, 2003

Admit it.

You want to kill that tailgating asshole who just cut in front of you and passed on the right. You have visions of the violent, flaming death that he so richly deserves, but you merely flash your headlights, honk or give him the finger.

The revenge fantasy is one of the oldest shticks in literature. Its time-honored sense of justified rage underpins many great works from the Old Testament to Dirty Harry to Kill Bill. But has the revenge fantasy become a component of automotive design too? Perhaps.

Fantasy is a critical component to American life. Next to weaponry, it is our biggest export. Movies and other forms of fantasy are primarily what the rest of the world is interested in buying from us. I say this only anecdotally because I arrived here on the European continent a few of months ago on a mostly empty freight ship that had just dropped a full payload of European-made stuff in Philadelphia.

Expatriates I meet here have told me that they see their countries more clearly when living outside of them. What then do I see more clearly about America now that I live outside of it? For one, in Europe adults are treated as adults; and children are treated as children. On the other hand--from the drug-induced invective of Rush Limbaugh to electrical products that say things like "do not immerse in water" on them for fear of lawsuits--it would seem that in America, both adults and children are uniformly treated as children.

I also now see this childishness when looking at American car culture. From early childhood years glued to construction videos to later childhood years of dinosaur obsession, American children are indoctrinated into "the bigger the better" value system. The enormity of every new McMansion and each successive monster SUV like the H2, whose ability to "win by a lot in a head on crash with a Suburban", are the adult fulfillments of childhood fantasy.

"Feelings of safety" is the American consumer's most common justification for buying out-sized SUVs. I have heard this repeatedly--both in focus groups and while doing ethnographic research--from SUV owners for years, and have concluded that it is disingenuous. What makes consumers look over other rational problems like the rollovers and increased fossil-fuel consumption of SUVs enough to still buy them?

From a consumer experience perspective, I believe that Americans buy SUVs for the ability to drive offensively whenever they feel like it. Let's admit it, defensive driving has gone the way of Harley Earl, Jan and Dean and Signal 30. It is also obvious that contemporary automotive styling has become decidedly more aggressive in recent years.

But "styling," the term coined by Harley Earl to describe the design function in an automotive corporation is merely a decorative element in the drama that has become road rage. How has design--or more accurately, "design-by-default"--contributed to road rage?

One way is that with the proliferation of airbags and gizmo-enhanced interiors, drivers feel a greater sense of invulnerability in newer cars. Armed with this, they will take more risks on the road. Another way is that current American consumers demand an even greater illusion of individual autonomy from their major purchases than in the past--e.g. all of those McMansions in gated communities, monster SUVs on freeways and low taxes. And yet, with this heightened sense of personal autonomy come feelings of isolation, anonymity and misanthropy, and thus a more unforgiving nature while driving.

Sadly the only communal experiences available to many Americans nowadays take place either at the mall, on the Internet or the freeway. The freeway is peculiar in that while it is a public space, everyone on it is isolated. And with road rage, which is usually only a response to a perceived slight, where do "feelings of safety" end, and the will to individual dominance begin? I think with offensive driving.

Someday, maybe someone with truly experiential vision at an automotive company will realize that contemporary roadways are public places replete with rituals of self-expression, and that current automobiles are inadequate, inarticulate instruments for performing them. I would be pleasantly surprised if automobile manufacturers (many of whom have an unfortunate habit of confusing design with styling) tried to solve offensive driving with a substantial, experiential design challenge. If I were cynical, I would liken their motives to weapon suppliers who are shrewd enough to realize that they will profit more from ignoring this increased sense of conflict between drivers than by addressing it.

But I cling to the belief that car makers can help solve offensive driving by enabling better communication between drivers. A small example: As a New Yorker, I endured a symphony of taxi horns outside my apartment every morning. One would assume that these horns were all blown in anger, but this was not the case. While plenty of horns are blown in anger in New York, residents there know that a horn blown with the right touch can take on nuanced meanings like, "Hey, how you do' in?" or even, "Go ahead and pull out in front of me." New York horn conversation may not be the ideal solution for better communication on the roads, but it provides a point of departure for a potentially innovative design program.

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My understanding of German is only slightly better than my understanding of New York horn honks. I am oblivious to both compliments and insults here. In an inexpensive attempt to improve my pidgin German, I listen to the radio. I have managed to learn the vocabulary used in the traffic reports. What I can now understand of them sometimes horrifies me.

It seems that nearly every day, somewhere in Germany, there is a multi-car catastrophe that closes a section of autobahn for several hours. A typical example happened the other day just outside of Stuttgart, the city, incidentally, where both Porsche and Mercedes are based. In dense fog during the morning rush, 39 cars piled up after one of them hit a dog.

Having now driven regularly on the autobahn, I have concluded that there is no greater malevolent influence on the average motorist in Germany than Formula One racing. Formula One is a popular spectator sport. There are times when I believe that everyone driving here aspires to be Michael Schumacher. I see signals everywhere that indicate the consumerization of Formula One, like the silly Citroen ads on television that depict gas stations as pit stops. German automotive manufacturers appear to encourage more consumerization of the Formula One ideal.

Like race cars, most German cars are designed as the ideal tools--not just for getting from point A to point B--but for getting and maintaining an uncompromising road position at extremely high speeds. All of the automotive companies who compete in Formula One justify it for the promise of innovation, and perhaps also for the sexy image that racing confers on their brands. Formula One has inspired a lot of good consumer features, particularly in engine, drive train and suspension technology. But problems begin when drivers of lesser skill take to the roads with these latest and greatest technologies. And while German cars are some of the most road-articulate cars on earth, the only modes of communication available to their drivers are through a vocabulary of high speed, great handling and cornering. Naturally, aggression is the only possible resulting language.

It would seem that for Germans, (whose generous social systems, efficient mass-transit infrastructure and willingness to be heavily taxed to maintain them) car driving indulges deep-seated, hyper-selfish fantasies of personal autonomy that are simply not tolerated elsewhere within the communal richness of their society. The levels of speed aggression on the roads in Germany make those two, legendary automotive hellholes back home--Massachusetts and New Jersey, respectively--seem like amusement park rides.

As infantile as the fantasies that animate car design are--in America, bigness; in Germany, speed--they can hopefully only mature in the future. All of the technological advancement in automotive design over the years has been no more an evolutionary improvement than perhaps the lean-to was to the cave. After all, the automobile has been around for only about 100 years and still borrows heavily from the architecture of horse and carriage.

The car was originally sold to consumers as an instrument for achieving personal autonomy, and yet it could still evolve into a more communal device than we ever imagined. Hopefully this will happen, and revenge fantasies will stay where they belong--in the movies--and away from freeways and autobahns.

Cordy Swope is a design strategist and co-founder of normal life, a research and product development consulting firm.

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