" Detroit is a town of engineers, and engineers like to believe that there is some connection between the success of a vehicle and its technical merits. But the S.U.V. boom…made no sense to them. Consumers said they liked four-wheel drive. But the overwhelming majority of consumers don't need four-wheel drive…As Keith Bradsher writes in "High and Mighty" what consumers said was "If the vehicle is up high, it's easier to see if something is hiding underneath or lurking behind it."
A top engineer says, "Sport-utility owners tend to be more like 'I wonder how people view me,' …internal market research concluded S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed…nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills. Ford's designers took their cues from "fashionably dressed women wearing hiking boots or even work boots while walking through expensive malls." "The only time those S.U.V.s are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 a.m."
The truth, underneath all the rationalizations…S.U.V. buyers thought of big, heavy vehicles as safe. To the engineers, that didn't make any sense: if consumers wanted something that was big and heavy and comforting, they ought to buy minivans, since minivans 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 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 numbers in a Ford Windstar minivan 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. French-born cultural anthropologist G. Clotaire Rapaille concluded from countless, intensive sessions 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." During the design of Chrysler's PT Cruiser, one of the things Rapaille learned was that car buyers felt unsafe when they thought that an outsider could easily see inside their vehicles. So Chrysler made the back window of the PT Cruiser smaller. Of course, making windows smaller makes driving more dangerous, not less so. But that's the puzzle of what has happened to the automobile world: feeling safe has become more important than actually being safe."
Excerpted from the New Yorker Magazine