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SPECIAL AUTO ISSUE

Designing the Pleasure Package

Why 'Fine Corinthian Leather' Just Isn't Enough in the Boldest New Frontier of Car Design

September 14, 2003|Philip Reed | Philip Reed is the consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com, an online car information service in Santa Monica. He last wrote for the magazine about sending his teenage son to defensive driving school.

When I learn that I'll be wired with electrodes for a test drive across Switzerland in a Mercedes-Benz E500, there's a lot of speculation among my co-workers about exactly where the sensors will be placed. After all, part of this is to see how much pleasure I experience while behind the wheel of the luxury German car. Pleasure, according to Mercedes researchers, is the next frontier of auto design.

In a darkened hotel room in Lugano, Switzerland, I go through a battery of tests before the technician asks me to remove my shirt. The sensors are taped to my chest, neck, forearm and the instep of my left foot. The wires are plugged into a box on my hip and, as I slide into the Benz, I'm connected to a computer in the trunk.

This test drive from Lugano to Munich, Germany, is a peek behind the scenes of Mercedes' Driver Fitness Safety program, conducted with researchers from parent company DaimlerChrysler. My heartbeat and other physical signs will tell researchers how the innovations in this Mercedes made me feel during my five-hour journey. It's part of a project to show that a more relaxed driver is a safer driver. However, Mercedes concedes that it's also trying to gauge a driver's perception of pleasure.

Claims of "driving pleasure" are hardly new. But in today's cutthroat market, designers are trying to quantify pleasure on a psychological level to give their brand an advantage. Engineers and psychologists in labs from Detroit to Tokyo, and designers from Southern California to Stuttgart, Germany, are monitoring sounds, flipping switches and analyzing vibrations to find out how to heighten the pleasure factor.

"We want to go more into what we call 'hedonism,' the pleasure of driving," says my host, Goetz Renner, a psychologist and head of the Acceptance/Behavioral Analysis Department at DaimlerChrysler Research. "We need a more systematic approach to pleasure because, at the very end, pleasure will distinguish between the products."

Mercedes is looking to the most elemental human signal--the heartbeat--to study drivers' reactions to new models and features. Using a global positioning satellite and the computer in the E500's trunk, researchers compare my position and speed to my heart rate. Periodically an ethereal computerized voice asks, "How are you feeling?" and I record my answers on a touch screen mounted to the dash. Now my heart rate must be level, I think, watching the storybook landscape of Switzerland glide past outside. But I wonder what will happen when I hit the autobahn, where, as the Germans say, speed is unregulated.

While Mercedes sets the pace, other car makers are in hot pursuit of the pleasure package. But pleasure isn't just about creature comforts. Ford holds claim to producing the nation's top-selling vehicle, the F-150 pickup truck, last redesigned in 1996. At the top of the list of changes in the newly released 2004 model: more power. Or, more specifically, more torque.

Pete Dowding, an engine program manager for Ford, knows that torque--the twisting force that, in the extreme, delivers the intoxicating sound of squealing rubber--can feel great. "Horsepower is what everyone talks about, but torque is the most important figure. Peak torque, and where you make peak torque, is what drivers really notice." As a result, the 300-horsepower V8 in the new F-150 was retooled to provide what driving enthusiasts call "low-end grunt"--a quick surge of power when you hit the accelerator that "gives a very pleasurable feeling to the driver," Dowding says.

Another Ford researcher is working to make sure that drivers always get good vibrations. Ray Meier, a technical expert at the Ford Research Laboratory in Dearborn, Mich., uses a vehicle-vibration simulator to study drivers' reactions to the way a car rides. "We use the vehicle-vibration simulator to basically understand terms the customer uses such as, 'It's a smooth ride,' 'The car feels tight,' 'It's a good ride.' Those things don't mean too much to an engineer. You have to be able to translate that information into something the engineer can use."

The simulator, which looks like a detached car seat, steering wheel and pedals, can produce specific "vibration events" by sending impulses to the steering wheel, the seat or the floor pan. After a subject is exposed to various vibrations, a "paired comparison" test, among others, is given to gather the person's reaction by choosing the favorite of several different options.

Meier seems shocked when asked if his goal is to eliminate all vibrations. "Oh, no," he says. "Truck owners expect the rough ride while a Lincoln owner wants a smooth ride. What we're trying to understand is what a person finds pleasurable about the vibration signal they're feeling."

Designers, then, feed our expectations, fulfilling the old saying, "You are what you drive."

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