Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Death By Focus Group

I'm guessing many of you have noticed a clear shift in automotive tastes over the years, where products no longer attempt to reflect the idealogical impressions we had of cars when we were young (unless you were born in the 90's, in which case, you are still young).

I remember when I was about 13, being stunned at the sheer speed of my mates fathers VL Commodore. When he asked me to push the overdrive button on the shifter, all he did was floor that (Nissan) 3.0 litre straight six and make a face like he was fearing for his life. The NVH completed the illusion. I also thought my 1974 HQ Kingswood was fast, but in reality, it was just my first car and therefore accelerated like the space shuttle and cornered like TRON. None the less, I still chase that same feeling of exhiliaration, these days attained by nailing gear selection and apexes through a series of favoured twisties.

Look at vehicles these days and the advertising and product seems more focussed on connectivity to electronics rather than the road. Vibrating, heated seats, Follow-me-home puddle lights and on board golf ball cleaner? A Jedi craves not these things.

How could this be? The very pastime, formerly viewed as a demonstration of adulthood, a freedom reserved only for those having achieved the state determined age requirements and skills to the satisfaction of the local assessor, has become nothing more than an opportunity to obtain a larger Smart Phone docking station.

The content of the product has shifted dramatically from the primary function. "It is what the market demands" I hear you shout. That may be true. No doubt, endless focus groups have already defined your next car for you. Social Media updates available through your GPS narrator, automatic restaurant bookings based on the smell and frequency of your personal emissions, triangulated with your current location. All the "essentials" for modern life.

Most of the input comes from people whom are as interested in cars as I am in the discography of Lady Gaga.
Why? When you are building your house, do you ask the garbage man to knock up some blueprints? No longer do most people care about the functionality of their vehicle, with respect to the act of actually driving, thus, their input is inevitably detrimental to such qualities. The result is the slow decay of real cars and therefore a thinning of real car culture.

I am sure that not many people will even care about the atrophy of automotive communities (after all, cars are evil and they kill baby whales), but they should! Why? Because driving requires care and attention. Every road user that is checking their facepic status, is not watching the road, and, despite the bad wrap, [whom I believe to be] real car fans are very attentive drivers who focus more on honing their craft than impressing their buddies.

Manufacturers should take note too. The more they push features that take the focus away from driving, the less important their core expertise becomes to customers.

Do I have an answer on how to stem the tide? No. All we can do is hope that eventually all motor vehicles will become so saturated with features, that everyone has the same superfluous crap. Only then can the focus return to where it should be; on driver involvement and satisfaction.

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