Why Do Cars Have So Many Cupholders?

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CC BY 2.0. You can barely grab the cup in the front cupholders, it is in so deep./ Lloyd Alter

The Convenience Industrial Complex makes it so easy to just keep sipping while you drive.

My little Subaru Impreza has six cupholders, which is one more than it has seats. My daughter put a regular sized cup of coffee in one of the console cupholders and you can barely get it out, it is in so deep. Subarus is seriously into cupholders; according to Chester Dawson in the Wall Street Journal, their new monster Ascent has a record 19 of them.

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. He shipped them over to ensure the crucial role of multiple big holders was understood in a country where drink sizes are smaller. “The Big Gulp kind of freaked them out,” says Peter Tenn, the product-planning team member who procured the specimens.
Side door cupholder

Side door cupholder/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Cupholders are really important to car buyers in the USA.

There can never be enough, says Christa Ellis, an Indiana mother of four and blogger, who says she cares less about engine displacement than cup holders. “The cup holders are helpful for organizing the van in ways that don’t even involve drinks,” she says, noting they are a perfect place to hold playthings. “Fries also sit nicely in the extra cup holders.”

Most cars made for the European or Japanese market don't have many cupholders; eating in the car is thought to be disgusting, and they have wonderful highway restaurants that you can stop at. The manufacturers had to learn the hard way if they wanted to export to the USA.

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

No grazing and sipping on French buses, you can wait/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

They do take a very different attitude toward drinking and grazing in Europe. When I was in France in the spring, the tour bus operator told us that we were not allowed coffee on the bus; they wanted it to be kept pristine. "By law, the driver gets a coffee break every two hours. You can get your coffee and snacks then." No grazing and sipping in France.

So how did North America follow such a different path? Engineer and writer Henry Petroski says the car companies followed the public, which was buying after-market drink holders when pop-top cans started replacing bottles. As we noted in the earlier post, that was an early example of the Convenience Industrial Complex at work, where you no longer have a returnable bottle but just breezily throw the container away, usually out the car window.

Nancy Nichols writes in the Atlantic:

Seeing the popularity of the plastic cupholders, manufacturers adopted them as part of a new overall interior design starting in the mid-1980s. Chrysler reportedly put the first cupholders in mass-market vehicles in their popular 1984 Plymouth Voyager minivan. They were small depressions in the center consoles of the vans, intended to support a 12-ounce cup of coffee.

That's the thing. When did coffee become 12 ounces? Like the Big Gulp that freaked out the Subaru designers, this is too big to just sit down and drink. You have to take it with you and sip along the way because your body can't absorb it all at once.

A lot of writers claim that cupholders are a response to the longer commute times in North America, but that doesn't explain the soccer mom carrying fries as well as drinks. Nichols quotes a French anthropologist, who claims that it is all about feeling safe in your moving womb. “What was the key element of safety when you were a child?” he asks. “It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That’s why cupholders are absolutely crucial.”

Now, cupholders are no longer just in cars; they are in shopping carts, baby strollers and ride-on lawn mowers. Nichols says they are even on "the large institutional floor scrubbers used by nighttime cleaning crews in hospitals and airports. Everything must also offer a place to put a beverage."

rear seat cupholder

The rear cupholder is in a tray; you can eat a whole meal if you don't mind dog hair/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I would suggest that this is all the Convenience Industrial Complex at work again. First, they outsourced where you drink from their real estate to yours – the car. Then, since you weren't clogging up their real estate, they could keep making the drinks they sell bigger and bigger, because they no longer cared how long it took you to drink it. In a coffee shop, you got a cup (maybe 8 ounces) and often had to pay for a refill. As happened with bottled water, Americans became trained to always be putting something in their mouth, constantly grazing. Of course, the car makers had to adapt.

So for the last 30 years, the cupholder has replaced the ashtray, and the giant drink has replaced the cigarette as our oral gratification device, and we all eat more portable food on the road instead of in our homes or the roadside restaurants, sipping and grazing all the way, and the Convenience Industrial Complex sells more paper and plastic. And as night follows day, the people inside the cars get bigger too, and the cars get bigger to accommodate them.