Saturday, August 19, 2006

Suvs and the Reptilian Brain

A few weeks ago, I saw Wall Street Journal actually use the phrase "post-SUV era" (they also mention minivans, but SUVs were often for the same market as minivans, but for the selfish and vain - see below), but I wanted to try to dig up references to it. Unfortunately, WSJ doesn't have much online for free, so I didn't come up with anything from them, but maybe my searches weren't creative enough. It's also possible I have the exact wording of the phrase right.

In any case, it might look like less SUVs (and big trucks in general) will be on the road. I'd venture that a lot of Ford's troubles are due to this - gasoline is roughly 50 cents higher right now than it was last year.

I even wonder if the causes of the "post-SUV era" are behind Volkswagen reintroducing a new, updated scirocco. I used to be the proud owner of a Corrado that I owned for almost 10 years, and I had an old Scirroco for a while as a backup.

Anyway, while digging around for references on the post-SUV era, I found a page that referenced a favorite book of mine, High and Mighty. I've read many reviews that bash Bradsher for the book's more acidic remarks. The funny part is that many of the remarks they bash the author for came from the industry. Allow me some great examples, all from this page:

Bradsher brilliantly captures the mixture of bafflement and contempt that many auto executives feel toward the customers who buy their S.U.V.s. Fred J. Schaafsma, a top engineer for General Motors, says, "Sport-utility owners tend to be more like 'I wonder how people view me,' and are more willing to trade off flexibility or functionality to get that. " According to Bradsher, internal industry market research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills. Ford's S.U.V. designers took their cues from seeing "fashionably dressed women wearing hiking boots or even work boots while walking through expensive malls. " Toyota's top marketing executive in the United States, Bradsher writes, loves to tell the story of how at a focus group in Los Angeles "an elegant woman in the group said that she needed her full-sized Lexus LX 470 to drive up over the curb and onto lawns to park at large parties in Beverly Hills. " One of Ford's senior marketing executives was even blunter: "The only time those S.U.V.s are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 a. m. "

Ouch. It gets even worse.

The truth, underneath all the rationalizations, seemed to be that S.U.V. buyers thought of big, heavy vehicles as safe: they found comfort in being surrounded by so much rubber and steel. To the engineers, of course, that didn't make any sense, either: if consumers really wanted something that was big and heavy and comforting, they ought to buy minivans, since minivans, with their unit-body construction, do much better in accidents than S.U.V.s. (In a thirty-five m.p.h. crash test, for instance, the driver of a Cadillac Escalade—the G.M. counterpart to the Lincoln Navigator—has a sixteen-per-cent chance of a life-threatening head injury, a twenty-per-cent chance of a life-threatening chest injury, and a thirty-five-per-cent chance of a leg injury. The same numbers in a Ford Windstar minivan—a vehicle engineered from the ground up, as opposed to simply being bolted onto a pickup-truck frame—are, respectively, two per cent, four per cent, and one per cent. ) But this desire for safety wasn't a rational calculation. It was a feeling. Over the past decade, a number of major automakers in America have relied on the services of a French-born cultural anthropologist, G. Clotaire Rapaille, whose speciality is getting beyond the rational—what he calls "cortex"—impressions of consumers and tapping into their deeper, "reptilian" responses. And what Rapaille concluded from countless, intensive sessions with car buyers was that when S.U.V. buyers thought about safety they were thinking about something that reached into their deepest unconscious. "The No. 1 feeling is that everything surrounding you should be round and soft, and should give," Rapaille told me. "There should be air bags everywhere. Then there's this notion that you need to be up high. That's a contradiction, because the people who buy these S.U.V.s know at the cortex level that if you are high there is more chance of a rollover. But at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I'm safer. You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion. And what was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That's why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe. If I can put my coffee there, if I can have my food, if everything is round, if it's soft, and if I'm high, then I feel safe. It's amazing that intelligent, educated women will look at a car and the first thing they will look at is how many cupholders it has. "

Whatever the driver is, I can only hope that there are a LOT less of these things I have to share the road with in the future. These things embody the worst aspect of America - The thinking is that one is entitled to drive the biggest, most ridiculous vehicle based on how it makes you feel regardless of issues like other drivers, safety, Peak Oil, or environmental concerns. It's like the 1970's never even happened.

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