Multi-tasking at the Wheel

Automakers consider eating habits when designing cars

DEARBORN, Mich. -- The particularly American habit of slurping and munching in the car has created a niche for engineers like Todd Spaulding who get paid to spill stuff in cars, according to a report in the New York Times. For instance, Mr. Spaulding, a technical specialist with power-train engineering at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., might examine all the ways that the stuff people drink and eat while driving can mess up the gearshift mechanism.

He also might try to find ways to protect the public from its own clumsiness.

Americans spend more than 100 hours each commuting by car to work every year, said the Census Bureau. A survey, conducted in 2003 by Harris Interactive and commissioned by Auto Expressions, a manufacturer of auto accessories like air fresheners and seat covers, found that almost half of drivers often eat in their vehicles.

All of which explains why there is a growing market for gadgets that not only make it easier to eat and drink, but also help drivers keep their meals at the right temperature.

Brian Beihl, president of familyonboard .com, a Web site that sells gadgets designed for families who travel, told the Times that his company had seen an increase in sales of 12-volt devices for cooling, heating or preparing food in the car. Another big seller, Beihl said, is a 12-volt, 10-cup coffeemaker. Plugged into cigarette lighters or power ports, the devices take up to an hour to brew a pot.

Wouldn't swinging into Starbucks or the local convenience store be easier and neater? After all, there are cup holders in virtually every car nowadays, and many are designed to accommodate standard-size cups.

Why so many holders? "There is space for it," said Dan Johnston, a Volvo spokesman. "We know people drink and drive and have different kinds of beverage containers."

Not content to equip a car with the ability to cart enough liquid to fill a small pond, car manufacturers are now adding mechanisms to keep beverages at the right temperature without requiring drivers to port around a tiny refrigerator or car-friendly hot plate.

The newest wrinkle in the cup-holder explosion "is to heat and cool these things to keep your beverages cold or warm," said Chuck Giametta, who manages vehicle testing for the Consumer Guide Automotive "best buy" and "recommended" listings each year. "They funnel cold air to the AC unit through the cup holders," he said, citing Range Rovers as offering this function.

Some car manufacturers are making it easier to nosh on the road, too. They have even designed slots to fit fast-food containers. The Honda Pilot has an armrest that folds down to reveal slots meant to hold dipping sauces, for instance. And food manufacturers are packaging chips, candy and soup in containers that snuggle neatly into car cup holders.

It is safe to say that a good deal of food eaten in cars comes from fast-food restaurants. Nearly 90 percent of households bought food at drive-through restaurants in the last year, according to a survey conducted by the trade publication Restaurants and Institutions.

There are also devices to turn vehicles into portable kitchens, including practically everything but the kitchen sink. Portable coolers and warmers, which are popular for toting groceries, spare sandwiches, keeping baby bottles cool and then warming them up, run off electricity from the cigarette lighter or power port.

Of course, eating and driving is not exactly safe. Acknowledging that people don't always do what's best, Infiniti equips some cars with a "lane departure warning system," which reads strips on the road and buzzes when drivers wander out of their lanes, said Giametta of Consumer Guide. "You can pay even less attention to the road and more attention to your Big Mac," he said.

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