This Is What Some of Our Best and Brightest Are Working On?

The Wall Street Journal had a front page story this past Friday about the latest arms race – cup holders in cars – and it’s embarrassing in a couple of ways.

First (and this is assuming cars need cup holders to start with, which could be debated; see below), how many cup holders does a car need?

Subaru’s Ascent SUV, which seats up to eight, sports 19 holders, about 2.4 per passenger. Volkswagen AG’s new Atlas midsize SUV, has 17 cup holders. The 2013 Chrysler Town & Country minivan had 13 holders. Apparently, the more the merrier.

Second, how big do the cup holders need to be? Apparently the guiding principle seems to be the bigger the better.

At Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s design studios in Turin, Italy, a fake Big Gulp cup, sculpted by a 3-D printer, aims to show designers the importance of making cup holders for that beloved U.S.-convenience-store beverage size.

In Japan, Subaru Corp. engineers study extra-large coffee and soda cups a U.S. colleague collected at McDonald’s, Starbucks and 7-Eleven stores. The U.S. colleague noted that “the Big Gulp kind of freaked them (the engineers) out.”

The growing popularity of large thermoses and supersize tumblers such as the 30-ounce Yeti Rambler is prompting auto makers to introduce more-voluminous holders. Industry experts say the current rule of thumb is about 2 3/4 inches deep—70 millimeters—double the standard two decades ago.

As to why are there cup holders at all, it seems to be an American thing.

“For years, Mercedes was convinced we should teach Americans to drink their coffee at home,” says Daimler AG Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche. “Obviously, that didn’t work out so well.”

Even luxury cars are buckling to the pressure.

The new Urus SUV is the first Lamborghini to feature multiple cup holders, including a pair of carbon-fiber-swathed receptacles in the center console. “A cup holder means paying attention to customers,” says Stefano Domenicali, CEO of VW’s Lamborghini brand.

Apparently there’s a lot of engineering that goes into these cup holders, and not many people realize it (myself included), according to Terry Cooper, president of Fischer’s, a company that specializes in making cup holders.

Ford Motor Co. has filed a patent application for a gyroscopic cup holder to keep a drink upright while accelerating, braking or “while the vehicle travels upward at an incline (e.g., up a hill).”

Other high-tech holders employ LED lights, or warming and chilling functionality.

The cup holders do not just hold cups, but fries and phones also fit into such spaces. With the advent of self-driving cars there may be an even greater need for multi-purpose cup holders.

So this is the kind of work our top engineers are working on – cup holders in cars.

Have we reached the point where there are no significant breakthroughs left to tackle, so we’ve resorted to such trivial matters?

How about putting these people to work on better devices for the disabled or the elderly? How about putting them to work on climate change, or world hunger, or diabetes, or safer cars, or something more meaningful than cup holders.

I’m not sure it was the size of the Big Gulp that freaked out the engineers at Subaru, or just the mere fact that this is the sort of problem American car company engineers are focused on.

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