Biology and Sex Are the Future of Auto Design The reason people buy fast, shiny cars has a more sophiticated explanation than you may think.
When I was a grad student at the alma mater of 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy, I suffered the ignominy of a ride that paled in comparison with those of my classmates. While their parking spots boasted Range Bruiser Nantucketmobiles, a Ford Taurus with dead paint and a broken radio sullied mine. A decade later, I still remember the sour sense of deflation I felt as I hurried from that garage to class, pondering not my upcoming case discussion, but rather how crappy my whip looked next to that tasty Aston Martin DB5.
Shallow? Perhaps. But, as it turns out, my response was not just the result of social conditioning--it was driven by a hard-wired biological mechanism. And so in biology, I reckon, lies the future of automotive design.
Scientists have spent over a hundred years formulating theories to explain the existence of Aston Martins. In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen published his seminal work The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he postulated that we buy expensive things not so much for their inherent qualities, but for the attention we receive as we experience said object. He predicted the rise of modern image-driven marketing, which accords value to things exactly because they are expensive and seemingly exclusive--the reason why people pay a premium for a Lexus RX over its mechanical twin the Toyota Highlander. In Veblen's worldview, Aston Martins exist because of how they make other people feel, ejector seats or no.
Veblen, it should be noted, was living in a nascent culture of conspicuous automotive consumption not so far from that of 2010 Los Angeles: even back in 1899, fellas were spending bags of money to go really fast in pointless ways. The fastest car in the world in Veblen's time? A magnesium-bodied electric screamer called La Jamais Contente. That electric Tesla roadster you bought to get the chicks? It's so 1899, man.
At the root of the drive for conspicuous consumption is a phenomenon known as lekking. A lek is an arena where animals engage in sexual signaling in order to attract mates. Think of a studly tiger preening at a watering hole rife with hot tigresses, or Travolta at a disco. Lekking, as one might surmise, works best when you're the most macho thing at the lek, surrounded by adoring groupies. Automotive designers get this instinctively. As Harm Lagaay, leader of the design team which brought us the final air-cooled Porsche 911, once remarked, "It is all about emotion. If it doesn't stir anything inside you, inspire you, then it isn't a Porsche." Sports cars are designed with an eye toward the lekking scene. So, if you park your lame Taurus by an Aston and there's no one around to see you, do you still feel like a loser? Let's see what science tells us.
The Scientific Method
As a matter of fact, Veblen was only partially right. Via some elegant experimentation, researchers Gad Saad and John Vongas of Concordia University have uncovered a biological response to fast cars that compliments, if not replaces, Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption. According to their research, driving a cool car such as a Porsche actually does raise one's level of sexual potency; there's something visceral happening that goes beyond the reactions of bystanders.
To assess the pulling power of a hot Porsche in the lek, Saad and Vongas had 39 male college students drive two different cars for an hour each, first in crowded city (lek) and then in open highway (non-lek) environments. The cars? One was a clapped-out 1990 Camry wagon with almost 200,000 miles on the clock. The other was a 2006 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet. During their drives in each car, drivers had saliva samples taken to evaluate changes in testosterone levels while in the lek (city driving with lots of witnesses) and out of the lek (on the highway, with nobody there to witness their driving). To eliminate testosterone level variations due to individuals slaking their need for speed, each student promised not to burst posted speed limits.
The results? Interestingly counter-Veblen. Surprising, the shame of driving a Camry wagon across the lek before crowds of potential mates did not significantly alter testosterone levels. But, after driving the 911 Cabriolet, drivers experienced remarkable increases in testosterone. Surprisingly, freeway driving raised testosterone levels more than did city driving, despite the absence of Veblenesque bystanders. What Saad and Vongas discovered is that, while driving a Porsche certainly sends signals of conspicuous consumption to the world, a 911 literally makes a driver more potent from a biological standpoint, whether or not there are witnesses to your possession of the car. A Porsche driver, science says, no matter where or how they drive, have higher testosterone levels than if they were stuck in a sedan. By driving a Porsche they become more potent competitors in the game of life, presumably upping their ability to continue to do whatever they were doing to enable them to procure a Porsche in the first place. One might argue that, rather than costing more because marketers tell us they're worth it, Porsches are expensive because our genes value them so highly. In so far as they give us a reproductive advantage, their value is an intrinsic quality, not a social, Veblenesque construct.
And that is why my Taurus gave me that sinking feeling. Finally, here is scientific evidence that piloting a fast, expensive sports car makes you strong like a bull, while schlepping around in a crappy old sedan makes you feel, well . . . small.
The Future of Automotive Design
This research has a lot to say about where automotive design must go in the future. As a species, we're unlikely to forego fast cars in favor of lekking via public transportation. And yet, to achieve a polar bear-friendly future, it's clear that we're going to transport ourselves in ways that are more considerate of Mother Earth and of our children's children's children (especially true if you drive a 911). But now that we know that cool cars have a raison d'etre rooted in biology, we can't naively expect everyone to start lusting for a cud-chewing Prius when what their genes really want is a carnivorous Lamborghini. So what are automakers to do in a future where gasoline-powered cars as we know them--loud, fast, and (literally) explosive--will likely not exist?
In order to elicit the biological testosterone response that now sits with legitimacy alongside the ego-driven meaning of Veblen's conspicuous consumption--and therefore sell eco-friendly cars--automotive designers must figure out how to make hybrid and electric cars cool. Not just geek cool, but viscerally cool in an authentic way that appeals to the folks who currently buy Camaros and Cayennes.
Along the way, designers will have to answer some challenging questions. For example, what's the acoustic signature of an electric Porsche 911 designed for successful lekking? And can its aural fingerprint still be designed to raise the hairs on the back of one's neck, a la a 1973 911RS? Furthermore, can we program its gaggle of digital brains so that it feels a little wicked to drive, while ensuring it's 100 percent safe for innocent bystanders? Overall, how might the experience inside of the car be designed to feel hot, hairy and fast, while having the external reality of the car be clean, quiet, and zero-impact? These are the key challenges for future designers.
Big picture, automotive designers must come up with substitute yet authentic driving experiences or risk becoming irrelevant to our material culture. If this challenge is not embraced, the car's primacy in the lekking ritual will go to other product categories, and automakers will be trapped making appliances with zero sex appeal and little, if any, power to command they healthy margins they so sorely need. As another part of the Saad and Vongas study suggested, men may get a testosterone boost simply by being the guy with the highest-tech mobile phone at a party. So happiness really could come from having a phone, rather than a Porsche, in your pocket.
Might the iPhone be the New Porsche 911? When it comes to balancing the future of humanity against the mating success of the individual, getting that testosterone boost delivered with the lower carbon footprint of a phone wouldn't be such a bad thing.
But I'd miss the Porsche.