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Designing a Car With Basics in Mind--Roof Alerts and Towel Racks


Forty years ago, playwright and columnist Jean Kerr lamented the obtuse thinking of the automotive industry. Why, she wondered despairingly, were they always futzing with things like engine design and aerodynamic streamlining when they should be reexamining the area of the car that receives the most brutal use--the interior?

"What I really need," she wrote, "is a towel rack. And if the kids insist on stopping for chocolate frozen custard, two towel racks."

Apparently, her pleas have gone unheeded. Not only is there no model of car with that particular feature, the auto industry continues its tinkering in blithe ignorance of what people really want. Or, rather, what the people who spend the most time in their products--i.e. moms--want.

As a mother myself, it has become clear to me that while I can live the rest of my life comfortably without that teeny change drawer of which Honda seems so enamored, I cannot go another minute without a built-in vacuum cleaner. (Actually, the ideal car interior would be waterproof, with a small drain on the floor so you could hose all those smashed raisins and pretzel crumbs into oblivion.)

The illustrator for this column, a father, says a bin for diapers would be nice. My editor, another mother, would like a storage bin, perhaps under the front seat, for her purse, and a small impression on the roof in which she could rest her coffee cup in order to free her hand to unlock the door. The latter would be even more effective if it included a sensor that would alert you, as you start to back up, that you have left something on the roof, a valuable feature in its own right.

A mechanical arm that could reach from the driver's seat into the back seat tops the vehicular wish list of Karen Gee-Macauley, a public relations representative and mother of a toddler named Grace. That, and a built-in tissue dispenser, permanently Scotchgarded upholstery, and a built-in car-seat/cup-holder combo.

"I want a little computer that keeps track of which kid sits where," says Therese Lee, part-time magazine editor and mother of two teens, "so we can get rid of that argument. Also an official dividing line in the back seat."

And now that her eldest is learning to drive, she says she would be willing to invest in a car with dual controls: "steering wheel and brakes--especially brakes."

Long-haul commuters have special needs that car manufacturers would do well to identify. Chris Joseph, whose environmental-impact analysis work takes him all over the city, would like to dial his car phone by simply saying the recipient's name (a feature probably in the works, if not coming soon). He'd also like an electronic message board on either side of his car "so I can message the drivers around me." On the content of said messages, he declines to comment.

Steven Baxter, whose jobs take him from Long Beach to Santa Clarita, sometimes on the same day, would like a paper-towel holder, a foot massager and sunlamp--"much more reliable than a sunroof."

Sounds reasonable. Let's hope it's not another 40 years before someone listens.


Mary McNamara can be reached by e-mail at

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