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QSR Feature
Cars and Quick-Service
New car designs are making it easier—and safer—for diners to consume on the run.

In a recent survey of consumers, almost half (47 percent) told QSR magazine that they are likely to eat a drive-thru meal in their car. In fact, according to the 20th Annual Eating Patterns in America survey conducted by the NPD Group, Americans eat about 32 restaurant-purchased meals per person in their vehicle per year, up from 19 meals per person in 1985.

It’s no surprise because many of us are spending so much time in our cars that we are turning them into a virtual home away from home. According to the U.S. Census

Bureau’s American Community Survey (acs), we spend an average of more than 100 hours a year, in a little over 24-minute segments, commuting to work. And 87 percent of us drive alone or carpool.

Looking specifically at young Americans, aged six to seventeen, an average of 30 percent of respondents in a Kids’ and Teens’ Eating Habits survey published by Mintel last April said they ate in the car anywhere from once a week (17 percent) to at least four or more times a week (4 percent). When broken down into four separate age groups beginning with six-to-eight-year-olds being the youngest and 15 to 17 year olds being the oldest, the percentage of dashboard diners was pretty consistent with the 12 to 14 year olds nosing out their peers by only a couple of percentage points.

Although the carmakers adamantly discourage dining and drinking anything while driving, they recognize that consumers are spending an increasing amount of time in their cars and often choose to sip and snack while tied up in traffic jams. Passenger convenience and kid-friendly features are also major considerations for families on the go.

On average, 17 percent of children in the survey indicated that they eat at least once a week in the car. However, the type of food consumed was not indicated so there’s no correlation with car time and eating from a drive-thru. On the other hand, the question specifically asked about eating, rather than drinking, which certainly would affect the results.

As a result, many major automobile manufacturer are touting interior design features, from multitudes of cupholders to stain- and odor-resistant upholstery to pull-down trays with special recesses for fast-food sauces.

Consumers particularly covet cupholders. In a 2004 survey conducted by on-line automotive marketplace Autobytel, over 22 percent of the respondents said they would pony up an extra $80 to get the perfect cupholder and a little over 39 percent (compared with a tad more than 24 percent in a 2002 survey) would shop various vehicle makes or models to keep their soda snug and their coffee convenient. Sixty-four percent reported they use their cupholder “pretty much every day,” up from 46 percent two years earlier.

To make room for those colas and cappuccinos, ashtrays, which were once a staple of auto interiors, have become scarce—now often only available only with special “smokers packages,” replaced by recesses and devices for cradling cups in front and back center consoles, doors, and pop-out stowaway compartments. In many models, places for cups often outnumber those for passengers. For example, the Honda Odyssey minivan seats seven, but has 17 cupholders.

“Have automakers gone cupholder crazy?” the Autobytel survey asked. Apparently not, because more than 73 percent of the consumers responded, “No, keep em coming.”

Size as well as number counts when it comes to cupholders, with consumers asking for accommodations for containers ranging from Starbucks short to Big Gulp. Autobytel respondents agreed, urging carmakers to make their cupholders deeper (almost 34 percent) and wider (more than 30 percent).

And in interior real estate, a big part of the appeal of the cupholders is location, location, and location. More than three-quarters of the respondents in the Autobytel survey said they believed the ideal location of a cupholder was “on the center console, between the passenger and driver seats.”

This fall’s new Ford Edge tries to cover all the bases as far as number, size, and placement with 20-ounce cupholders in each front-door panel, rectangular juice box holders in the rear doors, and oversized cupholders in the center console and rear armrest.

Cupholder placement might not seem like rocket science, but designers have to be very careful to make sure that they are strategically located close enough for driver and passenger reach convenience, yet far enough away from gear shifts and other key instruments (not to mention frequently moving elbows and knees) to avoid obstructing driver or equipment movement.

Designers at Chrysler don virtual reality headgear to determine optimal placement of cup holders for driver safety as well as for convenience, says Sam Locricchio, communications manager for Chrysler Group Design and Quality. Chrysler also uses other types of technology to capture the attention of cola- and cappuccino-loving consumers.

Front cupholders in the Dodge Caliber, a combination SUV/sporty coupe designed for the twenty-something demographic, have luminescent rings that light up when headlamps are on to quickly and safely guide drivers to the nearest potable perch. For pure pleasure, there’s also a Chill Zone storage compartment that maintains four 20-ounce beverage bottles or cans at 45°F in the Caliber.

Front cupholders in the 2007 Sebring sedan can heat beverages to 140°F or cool them to a frosty 35. That upscale perk is also standard issue on the Cadillac Escalade SUV.

With dashboard (or back seat) dining come inevitable spills and other messy mishaps. For safety’s sake, Ford conducts a “Coke Spill” test on its cars’ console-mounted shifters when hit by splashes of stray liquid.

“One of the key things we look for is where the run-off from various spilled liquids goes to ensure that it doesn’t come into contact with anything electrical,” Bradley says. “Different liquids, such as water, iced tea, Coke, and even Diet Coke, behave differently, so we have to test a whole range of them.”

Earlier this year, Chrysler introduced upholstery covered in Milliken & Company’s stain- and odor-proof Yes Essentials fabric to ensure that ketchup, coffee, and cola don‘t take up permanent residence in the interiors of its Sebring sedan or Pacifica and Aspen SUVs.

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