The cup holder, in its modern automotive incarnation, is about 30 years old. It merits its own Wikipedia entry, which claims it was invented in 1943 by somebody named James Guillow. Well, who knows, really? However, the cup holder as we know it achieved industrial-design celebrity status in the 1980s, and it's been proliferating ever since. Last year, I test-drove a Chrysler Town & Country minivan that had 13 cup holders placed deftly throughout the vehicle. Prior to that, I attended a model debut for the 2009 Subaru Forester in which some of the product development people boasted that they had created a new breed of cup holder specifically designed to accommodate 24-ounce bottles.
Most Americans, regardless of how jaded they are about what cup holders represent (our lifestyle of never-ending, on-the-go consumption, with hundred of sugary, creamy calories never far away, even when driving), have grown to demand them. Moreover, after more than a decade of pushing the envelope with bolder and bolder exterior designs, automakers — prompted by the kind of expectations that cup holders inspired — have taken on the inside of vehicles, with a vengeance.
Despite the seeming simplicity of cup holders, their early deployment was far from ideal. I own two Swedish automobiles that date to the period before cup holder standardization, when European carmakers considered cup holders an annoying afterthought. On the 2000 Volvo, the cup holder is a spidery thing that deploys from the dashboard and blocks the radio and climate controls. It also does a crummy job of holding a cup. On the 1998 Saab, the cup holder is located inside a console between the seats, sort of behind the driver, and doesn't allow a beverage to be easily accessed. I usually revert to the old-school technique of placing my (cold) drink between my legs.
Design arms race
Today, of course, all new cars have two husky cup holders in the center console and usually a pair in both front doors. As you move into the back seat and cargo areas, the sky's the limit. You can have cup holders in fold-down arm rests, cup holders on the doors, and even integrated coolers to keep all those cup holders in a steady supply of cold drinks. Once cup holders escaped their awkward adolescence, when they were purchased at aftermarket stores and clipped to windows, or when they consisted mainly of indentations in the glove-compartment door, intended to hold drinks at the drive-in movie or restaurant, they entered an arms race.
Cup holders showed the automakers that people wanted to do a lot more in their cars than just drive or listen to music. So in the past half decade, a host of new interior amenities have come online. Integrated communications and navigation systems, such as GM's OnStar and Ford's Sync, have transformed cars into rolling cell phones with access to GPS directions 24/7. In-dash navigation systems are standard equipment on most vehicles in the mid-luxury and luxury segments — the automakers want to offer them to customers because if they don't, those customers are likely to buy aftermarket GPS nav units from companies like Garmin. Most family-oriented minivans, SUVs and crossovers come with flip-down video screens. The Town & Country I sampled had two, one for each row in the back. Wireless headsets meant that each of my two kids could watch his or her own movie or enjoy satellite TV, while up front, we could listen to satellite radio over the vehicle's multispeaker audio system.
Or we could plug in an iPod. Or we could pop in a CD. Or we could download music to an onboard hard drive, which also has the capacity to store all kinds of other digital data. Wi-Fi has also arrived, enabling passengers to surf the Web while rolling along.
My children still speak wistfully of the week we had all this at our disposal.
More demands as commuting grows
This intensification of the auto interior experience has broken through even the resistance of the enthusiast market. There used to be a cadre of car lovers who believed that power windows were a waste of money and that anything other than an AM/FM radio with two speakers was a distraction from the pure thrill of driving. (When I owned a bare-bones 1997 Mazda Miata that I intended to strip down for racing, I counted myself among this group.) No more. These folks have also come to demand the right kind of cup holder, along with the nav system and the hard-drive-based entertainment rig.
Ultimately, cars have become for many people things they don't just get in and out of. If they endure a long commute, they're typically in there for a big chunk of every weekday. They like to have entertainment options. They want a designer or an engineer to have thought about seat ergonomics. If more than one person in a family is driving, they want seats that can remember different driving positions. They want steering wheels that telescope and tilt. Passengers want to be able to customize their temperature zone, be it front or back seat. They want seats that are heated and cooled.
During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, consumers demanded cars that looked cooler and cooler. Sometimes this meant retro design, a cul-de-sac that Chrysler wandered down pre-Chapter 11, while at other times it meant an almost complete re-imagining of what a vehicle could look like. (The asymmetrical Nissan Cube is a good example.) However, as the 21st century has progressed, cars have begun to develop a more uniform appearance. Engineering, safety, manufacturing techniques, and a general sense among car designers that there's a platonic ideal of auto shape and form—it usually resembles something made by Audi or BMW—has led to a degree of exterior uniformity.
The action has consequently moved inside, to the more intimate realms of the interior. Now, to be sure, over the decades there has been all manner of interior accessorizing and doodaddery inflicted on the car-buying public, from matched sets of cocktail-ware stashed in the dash to custom-fitted luggage. At one point, ashtrays occupied the space that cup holders do today (a Lincoln from the late 1950s had five, with lighters). But interiors have now become environments, in many ways disconnected from the gritty hurly-burly of the road.
This is how we'll know our cars in the future, as distinct from more rudimentary rides, such as the el cheapo, very basic Tata Nano from India (although by the time its gets to America in a few years, it will certainly have grown a cup holder or two). It shouldn't surprise anyone that Johnson Controls, a company that designs interiors, has a market cap of $12.5 billion, while GM deals with bankruptcy and Ford faces a decade of paying off debt. The global market for seats alone is $52 billion.
Inside is the new outside. And to give thanks for this, we only need utter a single, simple phrase: cup holder.