The cup-holder paradox

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?