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January 11, 2004 - Automotive Psychology

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Automotive Psychology: If someone's going to die, let it be someone else.
Is it possible to limit the damage an obsession does to others?



In lasr week's New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell had a long piece on those SUV things - those luxury, top-heavy, truck-based transport vehicles just about everyone drives.  Heck, my nephew's wife out in Barstow is urging her husband to trade their nearly new Ford Excursion - the largest and heaviest passenger vehicle manufactured in American - for a Hummer.  The Hummer is a bit more brutal and looks bigger and safer, or maybe more "invincible and impenetrable."  This couple does have two children, five and seven.  And the world is a mean place.  I don't want to tell her the family's current Ford has more total mass and larger dimensions than even the largest Hummer.  She had her dream: the unassailable family car.  No one will ever hurt her or her kids.

The Gladwell New Yorker article is called "Big and Bad."  It's not available online, but an interview with the author is.

See Road Killers
The New Yorker, Posted 2004-01-05

Here is Gladwell on why my nephew's wife is so obsessed with the ultimate SUV:

One school of thought says that SUV buyers harbor a kind of outdoorsy fantasy.  But I suspect that it's more basic than that: this is a vehicle that can flourish in the most extreme environment imaginable.  If it can ford streams and climb over boulders, just think how safe and protected youll be on the trip to Wal-Mart!  Of course, the logic behind that argument is backward: the trip to Wal-Mart is a good deal more hazardous than fording a stream in the wilderness, and we ought to be buying cars optimized for the conditions we actually drive in.

Well, yes.  But one should tell people what they "ought" to buy.  That just makes them angry.

Gladwell comments on how market research does show that SUVs tend to be purchased 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."  This is what people said about sports cars for many years, of course.

Galdwell's response:


Well, it's not quite what people said about sports cars: for example, I think the people who buy sports cars have excessive confidence in their driving skills.  But, in general, the more expensive an item becomes, the more psychological factors play into the purchase decision.


Well, I'll have to think about that.  I see what he means - the more expensive something is the harder one must work to explain to oneself why the hell one is spending the money.  Got it.

Then how are these things marketed?  How does one convince a not-very-wealthy young family to assume a seventy-five thousand dollar debt for one of these?

Here's how:


Theres a television commercial for an SUV in which a woman is driving the SUV and a rock rolls onto the road in front of her, and she swerves around it at the last minute.  That ad claims that SUVs are nimble, and suggests that the key variable in avoiding the rock was the vehicle.  That is an attempt, it seems to me, to play to the driver who lacks confidence in his or her skills.  The most dominant image in SUV commercials and ads is still the SUV mastering some off-road obstacle: fording streams, cutting through snowbanks, racing across virgin wilderness.  Obviously, almost no SUV driver is ever going to use his or her car in those environments (in large part, of course, because racing across virgin wilderness in an SUV is, for the most part, illegal).  Another interesting thing about SUV advertisements, along these lines, is how rarely children appear in them.  Keith Bradsher makes this point in his book, High and Mighty.  Minivans are advertised in family-centric ways.  The SUV, on the other hand, is supposed to allow the buyer to pretend that he or she doesn't have a family, that he or she is still a kind of rugged loner without suburban entrapments.


Well, let me see... if Keith Bradsher is correct my nephew's wife doesn't really like her kids and wants to pretend she's a rugged loner.  That she wants a new Hummer means the marriage is in trouble.  I don't think so.

Gladwell adds that the most important other issue right now is the question of fashion: that, at the moment, certain kinds of SUVs (like the Cadillac Escalade) are simply considered cool, in the way that Corvettes were cool twenty-five years ago.  Maybe that's it.

And then there is the safety thing.  These things are simply bigger than anything else on the road.  If someone is going to die in a traffic accident, it wont be you.  Let someone else drive their little Mini or SLK.  You'll survive and win - even financially:


If every car on the road was a Mini, then the cost of an accident would be quite small: if you are in a Mini and you hit a Mini, you aren't going to be that bad off.  So, in the old days, the premium on active safety wasn't so large.  On the other hand, if every car on the road is an SUV, the cost of an accident grows substantially.  When a Ford Explorer hits a Chevy TrailBlazer, both parties suffer enormously.  And, if a Ford Explorer hits a Mini, the Mini driver is a dead man. ... As a non-SUV owner, I simply cannot afford to get into any accident at all these days.


Interesting.  Last month my little SLK was clobbered by a small, fifteen-year-old Toyota sedan.  The total cost of repairs was almost four grand.  The insurance company was not happy at all.  Had I been clobbered by a Hummer?  Well, not much would be left.  And I probably wouldn't be here.

My nephew's wife may have a point.  If someones going to die, let it be someone else.  Gladwell understands:


I don't think we can easily cure people of their desire to feel safe - even if that desire does not correlate with actual safety.  But what we can do - and ought to do - is limit the damage that that obsession does to others.  The important thing to remember is that the harm that SUVs do to other vehicles is not a simple function of their excessive weight.  In other words, if a five-thousand-pound SUV hits you, you aren't automatically dead. C ars are so beautifully designed these days that they can safely absorb tremendous forces in an accident.  (I always think of the fact that the bodyguard in the front seat of Princess Diana's Mercedes survived that crash, which was into a concrete pillar reportedly at a speed in excess of ninety miles per hour.  That's how good car safety has become.)  But all those safety mechanisms usually work if the car is hit squarely (or, at least, on the same plane) by the opposing vehicle.  That's what is not happening now.  SUVs are so tall that cars simply submarine them.  The kind of redesign that the automakers are talking about - making SUVs less "aggressive" in their accident posture and reducing the risks of that kind of submarining - is critically important.  Of course, it would be better if every car on the road was the same weight.  But that's not going to happen.


I guess I'm in trouble.  When I win the lottery I'll buy each of us our very own Hummer H1 - and we'll all be fine.