December 6, 2004
Stephanie Berryman wakes up an hour early each morning just so she can suck down enough coffee to fortify her for her six-hour commute.
That’s right. Six hours. On a good day. Her job? She’s a mom. She has 11-year-old triplet daughters and a 14-year-old son. That means she spends most of her time in the car, chauffeuring them to and from their activities.
And so her car is her home away from home. Without all the comforts, of course. Car manufacturers just don’t seem to cater to her crowd.
"I wish they had more things geared toward a mother with kids," Berryman said.
She’s not the only one. Women buy more than 51 percent of new cars and influence the purchase of 80 percent of them. But when it comes down to it, are cars really all that mom- friendly?
Kristin Varela wants to help women figure that out. She started a Web-based column called Mother Proof (www.motherproof.com) about a year ago, when her eldest daughter started preschool. She persuaded dealerships near her Denver-area home to loan her cars to test-drive for two weeks. Varela then writes a review based not on torque or turning radius but on the real important stuff, such as if the trunk fits a dual or jog stroller and whether the latch system for the tot car seat is easy to use.
Here’s what she had to say about the Volkswagen Touareg’s keyless access.
"When approaching the vehicle it senses the key nearby and unlocks the door automatically. This comes in handy when your keys have migrated to the bottom of your purse (under the wet wipes and snotty tissues) and your hands are full of children and groceries."
Clever, clever invention.
"I’m interested in how a car performs in daily life as a mom, which is what I am," said Varela, who also has a 21-month-old daughter. "I felt there was this huge void. You see in the commercials that they’re marketing toward women and mothers. You then get to the dealer, and it doesn’t translate. You’re talking to very young men who have no idea how to install a car seat.
"I started stopping every woman I saw at the grocery store or gym who drove cars I was interested in and I’d ask how the cars were working for them. You can’t find that out by driving it for 30 minutes at a dealer. You’re not bringing your kids, installing the car seat, lugging the stroller."
Varela said she’s shocked by the positive response to her reviews. But Eric Noble isn’t. He’s president of the Car Lab, an automotive design consulting firm in Santa Ana, Calif.
Noble said what Varela is doing is significant, because manufacturers aren’t necessarily making a priority of consumers who are mothers.
"Before you’re a parent, you don’t feel their pain," said Noble, who has a 3-year-old son. "Once you’ve been there, it’s very different."
Car manufacturers have put sliding doors on both sides of the minivan to make life easier for moms. But that type of vehicle doesn’t exactly appeal to everyone, especially because it practically screams MOMMY DRIVING! Christina Perucci simply refuses to buy one. She loved driving her Audi sedan — until her son’s feet could reach the back of the passenger seat, where he loved to kick and leave scuff marks.
Now she’s in the market for something larger. It will likely be an SUV.
"I would never be caught in a minivan," said Perucci, who also has an infant daughter. "It’s so ‘mom.’ I’d rather be uncomfortable than drive a minivan or a station wagon. My mom said, ‘We did it,’ and I said, ‘Exactly.’ ’’
So what, exactly, do moms really want in a car? We polled some mothers to find out what kind of inventions would make the perfect childtoting mobile. Stephanie Berryman, Perucci, Kristen Clements, Cecilia Novella and Elizabeth Perez came up with some nifty ideas. We then asked Noble whether they will ever become reality.
Dream: A soundproof window like the one in limousines that could be rolled up and down to silence the sounds of squabbling kids, or just their bad music.
Reality: "Ah, the Cone of Silence. That one has come up in any minivan research that we’ve ever done. In the last five years, we’ve had some family vehicles with dualzone sound controls. That’s a first step toward what ultimately will be individual sound zones. Everyone would have their own audiovisual sound, or your music sound, or your own noise cancellation. The reason you don’t get a roll-up window is because it conflicts with walk-through ability."
Estimated time of arrival: When current little tykes are in college.
Dream: Trays that fold down from the back of the front seats so kids could snack or color with crayons.
Reality: "It is happening in the high end, like the Rolls-Royce Phantom. The issue is impact. It’s tough to get it close enough for a child who’s properly restrained. That’s just ergonomics. The closer it gets for children in a car seat to use, the harder it is to make it safer for impact. For trays that would come out of the armrest, there’s a fair bit of mechanism required in order to make those work. And that mechanism, costwise, is beyond the threshold of what manufactures are willing to spend within a family vehicle."
ETA: "They will eventually happen because they’re such a good idea."
Dream: A rack on the back of the car to hang a stroller, or a clip inside to attach a baby mobile.
Reality: "It’s likely to happen through after-market. Manufacturers are not good at innovating, especially through accessories."
ETA: As soon as someone invents them. Any "momtrepreneurs" out there?
Dream: A day planner/GPS system to keep track of your kids so you don’t forget, for instance, to pick little Emma up from dance class and Jacob up from Little League, and also driving directions to retrieve them.
Reality: "It’ll happen, but by the time it does, it will be contained on a cell phone. Ultimately, none of this stuff (such as a GPS system) will be built in. The consumer electronics industry moves much faster." ETA: Sooner than later.
Dream: A built-in vacuum cleaner, so your car doesn’t become permanently upholstered in Cheerios.
Reality: "It’s likely to be as popular as home built-in vacuums. Built-in appliances have been a bad idea in houses, or cars, with the exception of radios."
ETA: "It’s a cute idea, but it’s not going to happen."
Dream: A very comfortable driver’s seat, because that’s where moms spend most of their waking hours.
Reality: "It already should exist in every family vehicle. There are already heated, cooled and massaging seats in other classes of cars. Manufacturers don’t understand that consumers would pay an extra $500 for a truly good interior vs. the plastic junk they get now."
Dream: A recorder that plays such things as "Stop hitting your sister. Stop kicking the seats. We’ll be there in a few minutes."
Reality: "I think, as a parent, that’s the best idea of all. Some manufacturers have played with the idea of microchip technology for prerecorded messages. Some can store thousands of messages in a tiny chip. It hasn’t been targeted for that application, but instead of telling you door is ajar, why couldn’t it have 20 ways of telling you that?"
ETA: Some of that stuff will come.
Dream: Built-in baby seats so you don’t pop a disc every time you need to move it in and out.
Reality: "Tried and failed. Ten years ago, that was going to be the next big thing in minivan interiors. The problem is, we have evolving regulations for child seats. Over the life of the child, you need multiple types of child seats. Those are so divergent in design, it’s impossible to implement them all as builtins."
ETA: "It’s a dead idea in product planning."
Dream: Window shades that actually cover the windows.
Reality: "This is an overdue idea that would be simply solved by manufacturers realizing that a window shade isn’t a luxury feature just for the Mercedes S type. It’s a necessity for family vehicles. You’ve got this wonderful scene, you’re on Highway 395 going 75 mph through the heart of America. Then the front passenger is now unbelted, has climbed back into the vehicle, and is now asking the driver to unroll the window while he or she sticks a finger out opening and tries to time it right to capture a towel without cutting fingers off as the window rolls up."
ETA: "The technology already exists."
Some other fun ideas:
Clements wants a vending machine in the console where she could stick in a quarter and get a bag of Cheez-Its to tide over her hungry children. She’d provide the quarters.
Perucci would love some sort of monitor that would tell her the status of her infant, because "they’re coughing and you think they’ve died and you’re on the freeway and you can’t pull over."
Novella wants a hose so you could wash the dirt off kids’ cleats before they got in the car.
"A lot of these are great ideas," Noble said. "If those moms are asking the question of why these things aren’t implemented, manufacturers should be listening. What consumers think really does matter. In the end, many of these are going to be in family vehicles. Unfortunately, these moms will be empty nesters by that time."