North Americans Spending 15 Hours a Week in Their Cars

In the future, cultural clairvoyants have often promised, cars will drive themselves. They will accelerate, decelerate and manouevre around bends all on their own.

North Americans Spending 15 Hours a Week in Their Cars

In the future, cultural clairvoyants have often promised, cars will drive themselves. They will accelerate, decelerate and manouevre around bends all on their own. Sophisticated radar systems tucked behind their front grilles will scan the road ahead for other cars, then speed up or slow down accordingly. Miniature cameras will monitor the white lines on the roads, determine how to best position the vehicle within their boundaries, then steer. The Car of the Future will function as a second set of eyes, hands and reflexes. It will make reliable, if fallible, executive decisions wherever needed, which means the Driver of the Future will be freed up to tend to more pressing matters: phone calls, work memos, online shopping, music appreciation, sandwich preparation, personal hygiene and backlogged episodes of CSI: Miami.

Lo and behold, the future has arrived - and it's shaped like a Honda Accord. This spring, Honda (UK) has announced it will unveil the Accord ADAS, the first mainstream car equipped with an autopilot system that enables it to more or less drive itself on highways. By shouldering much of the responsibility, company representatives say, the car's "Advanced Driver Assist System" technology will help to improve driver awareness and combat fatigue - although drivers can't just climb into the back seat for a siesta or break out the champagne and start the weekend early. The people at Honda, clairvoyant in their own way, have designed the system so that the driver must touch the steering wheel every 10 seconds to tell the car he's still paying attention. By 2016, Honda says, every single one of its vehicles will come equipped with ADAS.

With the advent of the self-governing vehicle, the reinvention of cars as deluxe second homes is virtually complete. Already, new 2007 models come rigged with every plausible domestic comfort and amenity - iPod docks, Wi-Fi capability, mini-fridges, video game consoles, satellite TV. The cars of today function as living rooms, with plush, fully customizable leather seats that keep your bum warm in the winter and chilled in the summer. They are dining rooms, with collapsible tables and cupholders that spring forth from secret compartments. They are home offices where phone calls, text messages and emails can be exchanged; and they are home entertainment centres, often with higher-quality stereo systems and flat screen TVs than you might find in the average household. The new cars are flexible storage facilities and powder rooms, complete with illuminated makeup mirrors and sunglass holders. In fact, the Car of the Future is not so much a car as a mobile pleasure dome. And the Driver of the Future, with both hands free to ensure minimal cappuccino spillage, is hardly a driver at all.

The dilemma with driving has long been that, unless you are the proud owner of a Lamborghini Diablo, and you live and work on a closed track, it's a little boring. And North Americans don't do well with boredom. Thanks to urban sprawl and highway congestion, the modern driver spends, on average, more than 15 hours a week inside a car. Statistics Canada reports that, between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays, 2.8 million adults are on the move by AUTOMOBILE, and these drivers, marketers have learned, are not looking for time to reflect, admire the landscape, or contemplate the open road as a metaphor for life. Instead, what they're looking for is the ability to do everything they would otherwise be doing outside of the car inside - be it work, rest or play.

"You can't go too far in providing people cool, fun, flexible features," says Michael Berube, the North American brand manager for Jeep. The Jeep Compass, for example, a brand new mid-priced compact SUV, features an iPod holster that slides out of the driver's armrest and a nine-speaker sound system with MP3 player capability (including a set of speakers that flip out of the rear lift-gate for that quintessentially American pastime of "tailgating"). At the high end, the Audi A8 and S8 feature an optional 14-speaker sound system from luxury audio specialists Bang & Olufsen at a cost of US$6,300. Many of this year's vehicles, in all price ranges, offer drop-down LCD monitors with built-in DVD players and touch screen displays, video game consoles, GPS-based navigation systems and satellite digital radio. And this October, Audiovox, a New York-based electronics retailer, will introduce a product called the SkyBox1, a live satellite TV receiver antenna for cars, that receives Bell ExpressVu in Canada.

Accustomed to cellphones and BlackBerries, the modern driver also expects to be able to get some work done in her car. UConnect, Chrysler Group's voice-operated phone system, allows drivers to bring in any Bluetooth-enabled cellphone and operate it, hands-free, through the stereo system via a microphone in the rearview mirror. And this spring, the Ford Motor Co. will introduce an optional mobile office system in its F-series trucks. Developed in conjunction with Microsoft Corp., the "General Contractor" will include a mounted tablet computer with full Microsoft Office capabilities, a GPS navigation system, broadband Internet access and a printing dock.

When they're not working or being entertained, drivers are taking care of other miscellaneous personal business. "It's not uncommon," says Sgt. Cam Woolley of the Ontario Provincial Police Traffic Safety Division, "to see people getting dressed for work, shaving, putting on a tie, plucking their eyebrows, applying makeup." According to a 2005 Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey, 17 per cent say they read while driving, and 10 per cent admit to engaging in a "romantic moment." (That number jumps to 22 per cent among 16- to 25-year-olds.)

But perhaps more than anything, rush hour has become a movable feast. Recently, Woolley found himself at the scene of a mysterious auto accident at the base of a major expressway in Toronto's east end. Only one car was involved. A middle-aged woman had spun off the road and crashed into a ditch. Judging by the tire marks, Woolley says, it was evident she had lost control, which was odd considering there was no indication the car had been moving at any great speed. It was only after interviewing the woman, who was quite shaken up but otherwise unharmed, that police were able to identify the X factor: fried chicken. "She'd been eating it, and her fingers were so greasy they slipped on the steering wheel," he says. "Then she over-corrected and spun out."

This is no anomaly. According to John Nihoff, a professor of gastronomy at the Culinary Institute of America, in the U.S., people eat an average of 19 per cent of meals in their cars, if you include snacks such as doughnuts. In fact, food-related auto incidents have become so commonplace that Michigan-based Hagerty Classic Insurance has compiled a list of the 10 most dangerous foods to eat while driving. Fried chicken clocked in at number four, just above barbecued foods, which drip, and below jelly and cream-filled doughnuts, which squirt.

To accommodate our love affair with on-the-go fare, millions of dollars are being poured into designing cupholder-friendly packaged foods: Campbell's Soup at Hand, which drivers can sip from a reheatable cup ("M'm! M'm! Good! To go!"), McDonald's McSalad Shakers (pour the dressing into the cup and shake), Yoplait's ready-to-squeeze Yogurt Tubes and Nabisco's Go-Paks featuring plastic cups filled with Oreo Cookies or Ritz Bits. There are foods being developed specifically for "driveability." Taco Bell's Good-to-Go Crunchwrap Supreme, for instance, is folded up like origami so that the seasoned beef, warm nacho sauce and sour cream won't goop all over your car. (But in case they do, new-model cars are being swathed in materials like Jeep's YES Essentials, a stain-resistant, anti-microbial, high-tech fabric.)

Over time, people's desire to multi-task, to live life fully in their cars, has impacted the actual design of cars themselves. Vehicles have gotten bigger, with roomier interiors and evermore flexible seating arrangements and storage spaces. Even now, in the face of fast-climbing gas prices, people are reluctant to sacrifice the idea of a living room on wheels. A new generation of compact SUVs is emerging as one of the fastest-growing car categories. Part car, part SUV, these vehicles offer more fuel efficiency without compromising on space and amenities. And to power the ever-increasing number of gadgets people are incorporating into their drive-through life, says Berube, compact SUVs like the Jeep Compass are being designed to include a 110-volt household electrical outlet in the centre console "so you can plug in a shaver or a Gameboy or maybe plug in a laptop, for example, to charge it up." There is a limit to how much current you can draw, however. "You couldn't do a hairdryer or a toaster oven," he says.

Arguably the most monumental development in car design has been the ever-evolving cupholder, now a staple of the American automobile. In his 2003 book about the provenance of everyday items, Small Things Considered, Duke University engineering professor Henry Petroski devoted an entire chapter to the evolution of the car cupholder, which began as a cheap "holsterlike" plastic product that came in gaudy colours and hung on the car door. Over time, built-in cupholders became a must-have feature, peaking in 1997, when Chevrolet dazzled consumers with the introduction of its new Ventura minivan: "Among its remarkable features," Petroski wrote, "were seventeen cupholders." As part of an ongoing attempt to refine the food-holder concept, the Honda Pilot SUV boasts, among other things, an activity tray in the rear-seat console that will hold fast-food dipping sauces. The 2007 Dodge Caliber features a beverage cooler called the Chill Zone built into the glove compartment, that can hold up to four 20 oz. bottles or cans. At the same time, the cigarette lighter, once a standard feature, has become largely optional. "We call it a smoker's package," says Berube of Jeep. "It comes with a small ashtray that fits into a cupholder." But it's an option that's becoming increasingly less popular, he says. "The majority of people would rather have the extra cupholder."

Not surprisingly, thanks to all of this mobile food-service equipment, today drive-through fast-food restaurants are a multi-billion-dollar industry. The key to success is maximizing convenience and minimizing the disruption of comfort. According to QSR, an American fast-food industry trade magazine that ranks the best drive-throughs in America for such things as speed and speaker clarity, the Wendy's chain offers the speediest service, serving customers in an average 124.7 seconds. Ever since it unveiled its "Eat Great, Even Late!" campaign across the U.S. in 2000, keeping 90 per cent of its locations open until midnight, Wendy's drive-through sales have surged, and now comprise 65 to 70 per cent of its US$3.2-billion business.

The drive-through concept has proven so amenable to the North American way of life that it has extended to include banks, dry cleaners, pharmacies, liquor stores, wedding chapels and even strip clubs and funeral homes. Recently, Starbucks introduced its first upscale drive-through windows. These services are a long way from where the first car-inclusive restaurants started, says Kevin L. Borg, a car historian from James Madison University in Virginia. In the post-Second World War era, drive-in restaurants (rather than drive-through) were destinations, along with drive-in movies. Families and teens on dates would pull into the lot of an A&W, place their orders with roller-skating carhops, and eat their meals off of removable trays suspended from their car doors. "It was an outing," says Borg. "Drive-ins were definitely about the scene and being seen. It was for the novelty of the event." By the mid-'80s, however, the novelty had worn off and people realized that parking to eat your meal - or watch a movie - while immobile in your car defeated the whole purpose of being in a car.

Now, the in-your-car part is almost incidental; cars are just another tool that enable people to get more stuff done in less time. One writer for QSR magazine (clearly a pro-drive-through publication) offered this rather noble exaplanation for the whole phenomenon: "Drive-thru is less a metaphor for the ugly American - instant gratification, throwaway society - than a perhaps inevitable and certainly logical result of the decisions made by a people who've changed life on earth for the better through their zeal for accomplishing." On the other hand, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The writer later points out in the same article that 21 per cent of consumers who frequent drive-through windows - not unlike like their counterparts 40 years ago - pull into the parking lot and consume their meals in the plush, air-conditioned comfort of their car.

As a predominantly North American phenomenon, drive-through culture has been widely maligned as a major cause of obesity. In a 2004 issue of American Journal of Preventative Medicine, one study found that an extra 30 minutes in the car each day translates into a three per cent greater chance of being obese.

The car both reflects and amplifies the social ills in the outside world. In Canada, 77 per cent of commuters say they drive alone. And as the driving experience becomes more insular - almost cocoon-like with tinted windows for extra privacy and security - people begin to feel empowered and anonymous. "There's ample literature and studies out there that human behaviour becomes different in a closed vehicle than it is in a social setting," says Borg. "There's a sense of social isolation." With that isolation, people are more inclined to engage in anti-social behaviour. "We've had soccer moms running each other off the road in those new minivans with the privacy glass," says Woolley.

Perhaps one of the most interesting consequences of cars as homes is that the dysfunctional family dynamic - in which members live in separate rooms, watching separate TVs, eating separate meals - is being transplanted into the car. The family road trip, a staple of American lore, is transformed. Cars have become so compartmentalized that family members don't even need to interact. You can have one kid in the back watching a movie, one listening to an iPod, and mom and dad up front - each in their own custom climate-controlled environment. "It's the end of communal existence [in cars]," says Borg. "This idea of a family vacation, where you all try to get along, get through arguments - the whole 'When are we gonna stop? Are we there yet?' It's part of maturing, learning. Now it's, 'Okay, you watch Shrek while mom and I fight in the front seat.'" Then again, in a culture where individual choice is prized above most everything else, who's to say this isn't exactly the way things should be?

Maclean's February 27, 2006