THE CUP HOLDERS RUNNETH OVER

Cup holders.jpg

Car designers now have to think about where you put your drink—and your clutter. Paul Markillie reports… 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012

From the inside, the new electric BMW i3 is airy and light. This, says its designer, Benoit Jacob, will produce a peaceful environment that influences the driver's state of mind. A calming interior, together with natural materials (including wool, vegetable-dyed leather and eucalyptus wood sourced from sustainable forests in Europe), will coax us into behaving responsibly. I interrupt his musing on automobile psychology with a query: where are the cup holders? 

"There will be cup holders," he sighs. "The world wants cup holders. Designers are crying, 'oh shit, another cup holder'." But Jacob is smiling. He knows that cup holders matter. The outside of a car gets all the attention—at first. Yet it is inside that we sit, often for long stretches, and nowadays most of us want to do more than just listen to the radio. 

The i3 he is showing me is a prototype, so the cup holders are not the only thing that will change by the time it goes into production in 2013. The car will be the first of the i series, a new range of electric and hybrid vehicles from BMW. Jacob, a French designer who began his career with Renault, is in charge of creating this new line. He starts with what amounts to a clean sheet of paper—or, rather, a blank computer screen. "A once-in-a-lifetime chance," he acknowledges. Whereas most existing electric cars have been adapted from conventional models, the i series is being designed from the start for electric power. This brings the freedom to do things differently.

One thing is immediately different. Electric cars do not need a gearbox, a propshaft, or a centre tunnel to house them, so the floor of the i3 is completely flat. This contributes to the sense of spaciousness, but has a practical side too: it provides more room for the clutter that cars somehow inevitably acquire. It's a curious thing that over the past 20 years, as our homes have become less cluttered, our cars have become more so. 

The i3 has most of its instrument displays and controls integrated into three touch-screen panels. Instead of having to look at different dials, the driver will find these screens automatically presenting information when it is needed. "Basically, the car kind of thinks for you," Jacob says. Conveniently, this also frees up space on the dashboard for a roomy cubbyhole, ready for yet more of our detritus. You will also be able to pile stuff onto the seats, which are wide and benchlike. And the four doors all open from the middle of the car, which BMW calls "coach-style", making it easy to get in and out, especially with children, dogs and shopping bags. 

These things never used to matter much in cars when they were sketched on the back of an envelope (in some cases, literally) by male engineers whose passion lay in performance and handling. But these days, there is a car advertised on the strength of its 14 storage compartments (the Fiat Panda). Car interiors still have hangovers from the early days of motoring. The glovebox was so named because we needed to keep our hands warm when driving old jalopies; now it is a lockable compartment for keeping your iPod safe in a multi-storey. Some cars, including my Land Rover, still do not have a vanity mirror on the back of the passenger's sun visor. And what is the parcel shelf for? Most are now too flimsy to support anything but a box of tissues or the map we no longer consult. 

Car design began on June 23rd 1927, when the executive committee of General Motors (GM) met in Detroit and approved the creation of a new department to "study the question of art and colour combinations". Harley Earl, who made customised car bodies for Hollywood stars, was hired as its leader. Over the coming decades, Earl developed the idea of making concept cars, both to get a better idea of what production vehicles would look like and to drum up interest in new models. He also came up with the annual model change and, brilliantly, put tail fins on Cadillacs. Earl was also the first to hire female designers, thus beginning the process of feminising the automobile.

Today GM has 1,900 designers in ten design centres in seven countries. Many are specialists in safety, aerodynamics, materials, colours or ergonomics: there is even a specialist looking after cup holders. Cup holders got going in the 1980s, although some were available well before. The idea came from the spread of drive-in restaurants and cinemas in America, as people parked up and wanted somewhere to put their drink. Now they take the drink for a drive.

Many European carmakers at first resisted fitting cup holders, only to capitulate in time. Some regional differences remain: an American car could have a dozen cup holders, a European one only half that. And the American cup holders are generally bigger (to hold those supersized Cokes). In Asia, the cup holders have to take drinks that come in square containers. 

Many blokes are still specifying their BMW or Audi with a typically sombre man-cave interior clad in black or grey, perhaps with go-faster trim in carbon fibre. But they will still enjoy the benefits of comfy seats that remember the position each driver likes to sit in, a climate-control system that can be set to warm or cool different zones and a satellite navigation system to get them safely to their destination, most likely with a voice as female as many of the designers who helped to create the cars they are driving. 

For proof of the female influence, just watch men ogle the new special-edition Range Rover Evoque, in a stunning matt battleship-grey and an interior fitted out in vintage tan leather, stitched in a similar way to a baseball, with rose-gold highlights around some of the controls. Car enthusiasts will know where this is leading, but most likely will not disagree. This is the best-looking Evoque yet, thanks to a designer hired specially for the occasion: Victoria Beckham. 

Paul Markillie is the innovation editor of The Economist

Illustration Nick Hardcastle