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Distracted Drivers and the Fundamental Disconnect in the Auto Business - The Big Picture

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 12/11/2014 Angus MacKenzie

"Oh, wow! This head-up display thing is really cool!" I was sitting in the back seat as a savvy thirtysomething woman guided a Cadillac Escalade through the leafy, money-scented back streets of Bel-Air, California. The woman turned to the Cadillac specialist riding shotgun in the front passenger seat: "It would be great if I could read my emails on this."

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I couldn't help it. I cleared my throat and said, simply: "Wouldn't it be better if we concentrated on actually driving instead of reading emails?" The woman laughed. "I guess so." We cruised past another $30 million mansion. "Maybe the car could read the emails out to me," she said suddenly. "And I could dictate the answers back." I groaned inwardly and went back to smelling the money.

2015 Cadillac Escalade© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Cadillac Escalade Those of us who work in and around the automotive industry fondly imagine there's a certain neat logic to it all, particularly when it comes to who buys cars, trucks, and SUVs, and why they buy them. But the more I learn about this business, the less I know, as my afternoon undercover at a recent Cadillac customer ride and drive event confirmed. (Full disclosure: Cadillac didn't know I was there. I'd replied to a mailer sent by one of the company's marketing partners, and they'd invited me along. No one asked what I did for a living.)

Yeah, performance and handling and design and brand values are cool, but a car that reads my emails aloud? Now you're talking. What else? Well, automakers developing bespoke user interfaces for vehicle navigation, information, and entertainment systems appear to be wasting their time and money: "Can I get Google Maps on that screen?" asked one ride and drive participant of the Escalade's high-tech haptic display. "All I want," said another, "is to be able to plug my iPhone into my car. Everything I need is on my iPhone."

Wouldn't it be better if we concentrated on actually driving instead of reading emails?

Driver Using Cell Phone© Provided by MotorTrend Driver Using Cell Phone We spend a lot of time here at Motor Trend arranging comparison tests between vehicles with recognizably common characteristics -- performance, price, size, function, body style, engine size, fuel efficiency, or any combination of these. We do it partly because that's how the auto industry sees the world, and partly because that's what's expected of us. (Oh, the hate mail we get if we dare compare two cars that aren't near-identical in spec, price, and market segment.)

But that coolly rational automotive taxonomy, all that careful segmenting of vehicle attributes and price points and buyer psychographics, collapses into an untidy heap of metal, glass, and rubber the moment someone declares they're thinking of trading their Porsche Cayenne Diesel for a Cadillac ELR. Huh? Yep, that actually happened on this ride and drive. Now, the idea of a Porsche owner cross-shopping Caddy's wedge-shaped hybrid would stun marketers and product planners in Stuttgart and Detroit alike, because to them it just doesn't add up, doesn't fit their view of the automotive order of things. But consumers don't necessarily think the same way.

Over the years I've come to realize the decision to purchase a new vehicle is always rationalized, but rarely rational. How else can I explain someone asking me whether they should buy a new Mazda subcompact or a used Range Rover? Or the guy who once emailed me to check whether the Honda Accord was really as fuel-efficient as the manufacturer said it was, and then emailed me back to tell me about the great deal he got on the Chevy Silverado 2500HD diesel he bought instead?

The fundamental disconnect in the auto business is this: It's a business run by orderly minds -- accountants and engineers -- who use system and process to carefully design, engineer, and build products that sell … on emotion. And that fundamental disconnect is something to be celebrated, because without it we wouldn't have the ageless Porsche 911, the race-face Camaro Z/28, the snarling Ford Raptor, the iconic Jeep Wrangler, and dozens of other cars, trucks, and SUVs we want to own because … well … because we love 'em.

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2015 Cadillac Escalade© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Cadillac Escalade
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