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Designing the Pleasure Package

Philip Reed is the consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com, an online car information service in Santa Monica. He last wrote for the magazine about sending his teenage son to defensive driving school.

When I learn that I’ll be wired with electrodes for a test drive across Switzerland in a Mercedes-Benz E500, there’s a lot of speculation among my co-workers about exactly where the sensors will be placed. After all, part of this is to see how much pleasure I experience while behind the wheel of the luxury German car. Pleasure, according to Mercedes researchers, is the next frontier of auto design.

In a darkened hotel room in Lugano, Switzerland, I go through a battery of tests before the technician asks me to remove my shirt. The sensors are taped to my chest, neck, forearm and the instep of my left foot. The wires are plugged into a box on my hip and, as I slide into the Benz, I’m connected to a computer in the trunk.

This test drive from Lugano to Munich, Germany, is a peek behind the scenes of Mercedes’ Driver Fitness Safety program, conducted with researchers from parent company DaimlerChrysler. My heartbeat and other physical signs will tell researchers how the innovations in this Mercedes made me feel during my five-hour journey. It’s part of a project to show that a more relaxed driver is a safer driver. However, Mercedes concedes that it’s also trying to gauge a driver’s perception of pleasure.

Claims of “driving pleasure” are hardly new. But in today’s cutthroat market, designers are trying to quantify pleasure on a psychological level to give their brand an advantage. Engineers and psychologists in labs from Detroit to Tokyo, and designers from Southern California to Stuttgart, Germany, are monitoring sounds, flipping switches and analyzing vibrations to find out how to heighten the pleasure factor.

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“We want to go more into what we call ‘hedonism,’ the pleasure of driving,” says my host, Goetz Renner, a psychologist and head of the Acceptance/Behavioral Analysis Department at DaimlerChrysler Research. “We need a more systematic approach to pleasure because, at the very end, pleasure will distinguish between the products.”

Mercedes is looking to the most elemental human signal--the heartbeat--to study drivers’ reactions to new models and features. Using a global positioning satellite and the computer in the E500’s trunk, researchers compare my position and speed to my heart rate. Periodically an ethereal computerized voice asks, “How are you feeling?” and I record my answers on a touch screen mounted to the dash. Now my heart rate must be level, I think, watching the storybook landscape of Switzerland glide past outside. But I wonder what will happen when I hit the autobahn, where, as the Germans say, speed is unregulated.

While Mercedes sets the pace, other car makers are in hot pursuit of the pleasure package. But pleasure isn’t just about creature comforts. Ford holds claim to producing the nation’s top-selling vehicle, the F-150 pickup truck, last redesigned in 1996. At the top of the list of changes in the newly released 2004 model: more power. Or, more specifically, more torque.

Pete Dowding, an engine program manager for Ford, knows that torque--the twisting force that, in the extreme, delivers the intoxicating sound of squealing rubber--can feel great. “Horsepower is what everyone talks about, but torque is the most important figure. Peak torque, and where you make peak torque, is what drivers really notice.” As a result, the 300-horsepower V8 in the new F-150 was retooled to provide what driving enthusiasts call “low-end grunt"--a quick surge of power when you hit the accelerator that “gives a very pleasurable feeling to the driver,” Dowding says.

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Another Ford researcher is working to make sure that drivers always get good vibrations. Ray Meier, a technical expert at the Ford Research Laboratory in Dearborn, Mich., uses a vehicle-vibration simulator to study drivers’ reactions to the way a car rides. “We use the vehicle-vibration simulator to basically understand terms the customer uses such as, ‘It’s a smooth ride,’ ‘The car feels tight,’ ‘It’s a good ride.’ Those things don’t mean too much to an engineer. You have to be able to translate that information into something the engineer can use.”

The simulator, which looks like a detached car seat, steering wheel and pedals, can produce specific “vibration events” by sending impulses to the steering wheel, the seat or the floor pan. After a subject is exposed to various vibrations, a “paired comparison” test, among others, is given to gather the person’s reaction by choosing the favorite of several different options.

Meier seems shocked when asked if his goal is to eliminate all vibrations. “Oh, no,” he says. “Truck owners expect the rough ride while a Lincoln owner wants a smooth ride. What we’re trying to understand is what a person finds pleasurable about the vibration signal they’re feeling.”

Designers, then, feed our expectations, fulfilling the old saying, “You are what you drive.”

The road winds around a mountain hairpin and i’m suddenly plunged into the darkness of one of Switzerland’s long tunnels. For an instant I’m blind, but I’m rescued by technology: The headlights switch on automatically and the rearview mirror flips to night mode. When I emerge into daylight again I’m close to Germany, home of the legendary sports car with the breathy last syllable: Porsche, pronounced “Porsch-eh” by those in the know. Sound is important in both the pronunciation and the car itself, because sound is a vital element in creating the Porsche pleasure mystique.

The sounds Porsches make, including that of a slamming door, are carefully monitored and tested in an acoustical lab in the quiet town of Weissach, Germany, by Hans Martin Gerhard, Porsche’s manager for sound design technologies. In a 2001 research paper, he wrote that the caliber of a car is revealed by the exhaust note and the burst of noise from the car’s drive train during acceleration. Oddly, Gerhard wrote, “this effect [on the driver] has nothing to do with the real acceleration capacity of the car.”

“The engine is like an orchestra with a lot of players. In a good orchestra they only play what they are allowed to play,” Gerhard says. “But in an engine there are a lot of players, and they play many things and they don’t listen to the maestro. We have to synchronize the sounds. Sounds we don’t like we have to suppress.”

When Porsche engines went from being air-cooled to liquid-cooled, their distinctive engine noise changed. But sound engineers worked hard to restore a seductive sound. They succeeded--at least according to a friend of mine. Driving a Porsche Boxster through a snaking canyon road with the top down rates as one of his life’s great experiences. The sound of the engine and exhaust bouncing off the rock walls made him feel as if he had died and gone to car heaven.

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I’m about to enter my own nirvana as i pass through the border into Germany. Ahead lies the legendary autobahn, where the real pedigree of a car is quickly revealed. But back home in L.A., many drivers are not interested in the upper limits of performance and instead putter around town in minivans that look like breadboxes. There’s no way that an ounce of pleasure can be wrung from one of those vehicles, I think.

Not so, says Alfonso Albaisa, interim director of design for Nissan in San Diego, who recently re-crafted the sophisticated look and style of the just-released Quest minivan, to which words such as “sexy” and “sophisticated” are being applied. Albaisa believes that the architecture of a car can actually change the mood of the driver and passengers, so when his team began redesigning Nissan’s once-dull vehicle, they decided to reconceive it as an urban loft. “To spec a house from the beginning is the most freedom an architect can have,” Albaisa says. “But a loft is where you go into that space and create what you can with what you have. You get a chance to do something funky.”

The Quest’s “beltline,” the bottom edge of the van’s windows, was lowered to give the driver a feeling of spaciousness. But then the beltline rises again, along the second and third rows of seats, because parents typically want to put a lot of metal around their kids. He hopes the design will afford pleasure by increasing feelings of both freedom and security. Inside, there’s a DVD player with a drop-down screen, the seats fold flat and five “Skyview” windows provide illumination.

“Being a child is all about dreaming,” Albaisa says. “When you open up the roof like that it feels so roomy in there. You’re seeing the trees and sky go by while you’re watching a movie. Where else can you do that?”

I check my mirror, pull into the autobahn’s fast lane and step on the accelerator. The response is immediate, powerful and nearly silent. As my speed climbs, I feel the conflicting sensations of fear and excitement. There seems to be no end to the speed I’ve unleashed. The trucks on my right are flashing past in a blur. “Enough!” my rational mind shouts, but I can’t lift my foot off the gas pedal. My speed builds until my path is blocked by slower traffic.

I try to file a memory of my reactions of this moment, eager to see the raw data later. I wonder if there is any way the numbers can reveal what my body was doing while my senses were screaming with pleasure.

The results are a little surprising.

In a Munich hotel room-turned-test center, the computer from the Mercedes is detached and my results are downloaded. I spend 10 grueling minutes staring at a little red dot that shows my fatigue level by recording how much my pupils waver. Renner and his colleague, Lutz Eckstein, head of Team Active Safety/Assistance Systems at Mercedes, bend over my charts conversing softly in German. Later, Renner spreads out two charts in front of me--one showing my heart rate and the other my speed. Together they are a lie-detector test of my feelings during the journey.

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“On [the autobahn] you went up with the speed quite heavily and your heart rate didn’t go up very much. So you aren’t afraid of high speed; you are still kind of relaxed.”

I calmly nod as if my interest is strictly scientific, but inside I’m high-fiving myself for being an unflappable stud. And there’s more good news. There was an uptick in my heart rate in the tunnels, but not much compared to some people, Renner tells me. After lunch I was calm and dreamy, and later I became tense while driving in Munich’s rush-hour traffic.

My short experience is only a portion of the test to which Mercedes and DaimlerChrysler subject a larger test group. The results support their claims of increased relaxation rates. During studies of about 2,500 drivers of S-Class Mercedes, researchers found that the muscular tension of their drivers was 25% lower than among drivers of previous generations of the car. Other pleasure features include massaging seats and an adjustable suspension, which allows a stiffer ride for performance driving or a softer ride for highway cruising.

One Mercedes feature in particular, Distronic--the adaptive cruise-control system that maintains an established distance behind other vehicles--shows great stress-reducing promise. The heart rate of drivers using Distronic on a test route through a variety of driving conditions increased only 1.8 beats per minute, compared to 3.2 beats per minute for drivers not using the system. My heart charts showed several long, flat sections when I was using Distronic. I remember how, with that feature engaged, I was able to let the radar scan the road ahead for obstacles while I enjoyed the amazing scenery of the Alps.

All of which raises a question: On the open road, where drivers are expected to remain alert, does the quest for pleasure and relaxation conflict with the need for safety? The German researchers contend that if stress is reduced, fatigue is reduced and reaction times and attention will increase. The various innovations are “supporting the driver, not taking control away” from the driver, says Renner.

Or so the theory goes. But Ken Gonyea, a former accident investigator for the Long Beach Police Department, has developed a different perspective. “The cars these days are so luxurious they create a false sense of security,” Gonyea says. “Inside, the car is very comfortable. It’s like sitting on your living room couch. It’s difficult for people to think they really can get killed very easily” while in this seemingly safe environment.

Designer and automotive visionary Ken Okuyama, now department chairman at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and, most recently, the designer of the Ferrari Enzo, says he is well aware of the pleasure factor in car design. However, he adds that the future may be going in a different direction than the public realizes. Okuyama explains that, because of freeway congestion and speed limits, the top speed of cars “hit the limit about 10 years ago” and the focus has shifted to creating the sensation of acceleration.

He says that convertibles are hot these days because they are, ironically, less comfortable and more challenging to drive. Other cars are being designed to be less aerodynamic so that wind noise gives the driver an exhilarating feeling at lower speeds. (Think how much faster 20 mph feels in a go-kart than in a car.) In this world, driving a car that causes discomfort might, in a sense, be pleasurable--it reawakens the senses and reminds us that driving can be fun.

Perhaps we are entering the age of the carefully un-engineered car. Future models will be sleek and streamlined on the outside, but carefully monitored levels of vibration and exhaust noise will give us just the right amount of a thrill. In this brave new world of cars we’ll rediscover what we always knew: The real pleasure of driving is where the rubber meets the road.


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