The cup-holder paradox

post by PhilGoetz · 2013-03-26T04:47:38.411Z · score: 18 (35 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 79 comments

I'm shopping for a car, and I've spent many hours this past month reading user reviews of cars. There are seven things American car buyers have cared and complained about consistently for at least the past ten years.  In roughly decreasing importance:

Six of these things are complicated design trade-offs. For a good design, increasing any one of them makes most of the other five take a hit.

Cup-holders are not a complicated design trade-off. This should be a solved problem: Put two large, sturdy cup-holders somewhere accessible from the driver's seat. There is nothing to be gained from saving a few centimeters on cup-holder space that could be worth the millions of buyers who will walk away from a $50,000 car because they don't like its cup-holders.

Seriously, build the cup-holders first and design the rest of the interior around them. They're that important.

In the 1970s, no one had cup-holders or knew that they needed them. Things began changing in the 1980s, perhaps due to the expansion of Starbucks, perhaps due to the sudden increase in commute lengths. Today I like to have at least two and preferably three drinks with me for my 1-hour morning commute: A hot coffee to wake up, cold water for when I burn myself with the coffee, and a soda or tea for variety.

But car manufacturers were glacially slow to respond. I've been looking at used Jaguar XJs. These cars originally cost about $100,000 in today's money. Their owners complained continually about the cheap tiny plastic folding cup-holders that couldn't hold cups. They posted do-it-yourself fixes in online forums. Jaguar didn't even begin to address this until 2004, at least fifteen years into the cup-holder crisis, when they made the cup-holders slightly (but not much) less-crappy, and large enough to hold a small coffee (but not a medium).

Most new cars today finally have two cup-holders up front, and the collapsible cup-holders that enraged drivers for years by (predictably) collapsing are finally gone, but many cup-holders still aren't large enough to hold a Starbucks venti.

What the cup-holder paradox implies is that there are many multi-billion dollar care companies that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on product development every year without ever assigning a single summer intern to take one day to read some of the many thousands of user reviews available for free on cars.com, autotrader.com, and other websites. If they had, they'd have realized the depth of America's anger at shoddy cup-holders.

Or perhaps they read the reviews and dismiss them, because their customers are obviously morons who don't appreciate good auto design. Even today, auto manufacturers post photos of the interiors of all their new cars on their websites, but never in a dozen photos give you a clear view of the cup-holders, which makes me lean toward this view.

Or perhaps the cup-holders aren't even considered during design, but are added on at the last minute, because cars didn't used to have cup-holders at all and so that's not part of the design process. Perhaps automakers have internalized their process of producing and selling cars, and they can't conceive of adding a new element to that process, at least not until all the old automakers die out.

My priors say that it's more likely that I'm imagining the whole thing, that I selectively remember reviews complaining about cup-holders because of my own preferences, than that there has been a massive, systematic cognitive failure on the part of all the world's auto-makers, spanning 20 years, during which many of them somehow failed to observe, comprehend, or address this trivially-simple complaint of their customers, despite the billions of dollars at stake.

Am I?

79 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by drethelin · 2013-03-26T06:50:32.525Z · score: 29 (29 votes) · LW · GW

I think car purchasers are much more likely to be insane than car manufacturers. Cupholders seem like exactly the sort of thing that someone might forget to look into when purchasing a car, but it is one of the most common complaints due to constant daily interaction.

How many buyers do you think actually walk away from cars due to shoddy cupholders? I think the amount of complaining indicates that most people go on to buy cars and then complain.

comment by drethelin · 2013-03-26T06:52:55.505Z · score: 34 (34 votes) · LW · GW

I also think you're ignoring self-selection effects among complainers. A lot fewer people are qualified to complain about performance and gas mileage, but everyone gets annoyed by cupholders. This is probably related to why a sex scandal is much more devastating to a politician than decades of shitty policy choices.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T12:12:11.056Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I agree, and I think I found a Wikipedia article which supports your claim and references the effect you are referring to, so I'll link that here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law_of_triviality

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-03-27T02:10:45.222Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

If people buy a car and then complain about it, that's bad press for the model, and hurts business.

Failing to model insane buyers is itself a failure of sanity in manufacturers.

comment by KatieHartman · 2013-03-26T08:53:57.803Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

This was my first reaction, too. I recall my car-buying experience consisting mostly of me trying to keep up with my impressions about seat-feel, head space, visibility, dash design, etc. and trying to somehow aggregate that information with numbers that I really didn't know how to process in the first place (e.g. safety ratings, scores from reviews, prices vs. upkeep costs). It wasn't until I'd pretty much picked out my car that I made an effort to mentally simulate a typical drive.

comment by mwengler · 2013-03-26T15:46:10.074Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

How many buyers do you think actually walk away from cars due to shoddy cupholders? I think the amount of complaining indicates that most people go on to buy cars and then complain.

What this says to me is that the automakers have a cheap gimme to improve customer's reactions to their car, and they essentially leave money on the table when they don't take it. Cup holders are not ABS brakes or cruise control or a great sound system even, but neither are they nearly as expensive as any of these. Even the apple iPhone is (subjectively to a phone engineer) 90% the same as its predecessor, they just fixed the 10% that brought them from good to great.

comment by SilasBarta · 2013-03-28T06:39:45.483Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How many buyers do you think actually walk away from cars due to shoddy cupholders? I think the amount of complaining indicates that most people go on to buy cars and then complain.

Exactly what happened to me. Not with cupholders, but with "car shoddiness by a thousand cuts" that you don't realize until after you bought it, that isn't "bad" enough to justify returning but also is too bad to tolerate using the car. For example, a visor that can't fold out and to the side without significant collision with your head, and which also fails to protect most of the side window. Untraceable, hard-to-reproduce rattling sound. And a bunch of similar things I can't think of at the moment.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-03-30T05:24:28.465Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So the car had bad aesthetics/taste in the sense Paul Graham uses the term here.

comment by Kawoomba · 2013-03-26T08:24:54.761Z · score: 25 (31 votes) · LW · GW

Don't be so quick to jump to conclusions.

  • Including good cupholders isn't a trivial problem, at all. From silicone cushioning to automatic cup-locking, to lighting, to thermoplastic insets, to accommodating a vast range of different sizes, from coffee cups to super-gulp 1.5 liter monstrosities, the list goes on. Compare to: What is the optimal can size, and form? Seems easy enough, yet far from a "solved" or trivial problem.

  • There are immense safety issues: If they impede the driver in his normal operation of the car, the manufacturer could be liable to lawsuits. Mustn't impede airbags, even using the largest fitting cups, or liable for lawsuits. Must be secure from spilling (not only an issue for 4x4 offroaders, but also for normal cars on the occasional bumpy road, or going up and down a ramp), or liable for lawsuits.

  • There are people specifically responsible for designing cupholders, up to whole companies, in fact. I remember an article stating that there were man-years dedicated just to the cupholder for some specific car model.

  • Real estate in a car is at a premium, especially the easily accessible portion. Accommodating someone who wants 3 beverages within easy reach (such as yourself) may annoy someone who just wants one, and doesn't like the way so many cupholders wreak havoc with other elements of the interior design (which you listed as an even bigger priority).

  • Outside of the US (say Europe), cupholders have a much lower priority (at least according to an article I'm just now reading). Eating and drinking cupious amounts in a car - while not unusual - isn't as common everywhere as it is in the US. (Obviously this point doesn't apply to car models that are manufactured exclusively for the US market.)

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T16:36:09.511Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Outside of the US (say Europe), cupholders have a much lower priority (at least according to an article I'm just now reading).

Indeed, I seldom drink anything while driving, the times I do I just place my drink on the passenger's seat, and I'm not sure whether I've ever even noticed cup-holders in a car.

comment by Emile · 2013-03-26T21:14:43.102Z · score: 9 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Fellow European checking in, I can confirm that cup holders are disgraceful things that clutter up space because those overweight Americans just can't go for five minutes without ingesting water sweetened with corn syrup.

(we have an unobtrusive cup-holder between the backs of the front seats, I don't remember ever using it)

I don't think Europeans really think that about Americans, but I suspect a cup-holder, while convenient, might also give the car a bit of a subtle "low brow" feel that make people slightly less comfortable in spending large amounts of money on it. A bit like how a comfortable bike seat may be better and more comfortable by all metrics, but be shunned because comfortable seats are for pussies. And from a business perspective, if 1% of people complain about cup-holders (but buy anyway), and 10% of people subconsciously reduce the worth they give to a car because of cup-holders, then including cup-holders is a bad idea!

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2013-03-26T21:53:19.084Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

How prevalent are drive-through restaurants and coffee shops in Europe? I think those are the biggest sources of stuff-to-put-in-cup-holders for most Americans, and it's plausible to me that they're less common in Europe.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2013-03-27T07:47:36.450Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

They pretty much don't exist. In my 50-odd years of living in the UK, I think I have seen a drive-through exactly once. (It's in a built-up area a mile or two from Heathrow Airport.) I have never seen one anywhere in Europe. And I rarely see drivers eat or drink while driving. In some circumstances, the police may even take the view that you are Driving Without Due Care and Attention.

I don't even know if my car has a cupholder. There's an odd-shaped recess near floor level, between and in front of the front seats, with no obvious function, but I have never had reason to put anything in it. A cupholder is not a thing it would even occur to me to look for when considering a new car.

ETA: Having just been in it, I can see that the "odd-shaped recess" is indeed a cupholder. One learns something every day.

comment by gjm · 2013-03-27T00:46:48.047Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

They're rare.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-27T10:40:40.168Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Some fast food restaurants do also have a drive-through window, but IME few people actually use it. I guess that unlike Americans, we're not so strapped for time that it'd be a big deal to park the car and sit down in the restaurant for the ~15 minutes it takes to eat a fast food meal. (I dunno whether this also applies in larger cities or wealthier, more northern parts of Europe, though.)

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-03-30T01:11:15.389Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Irrelevant. Europe gets completely different cars than the US. Some automakers don't even sell the same models in Europe and the US. If European automakers design cars for the US market according to European preferences, THAT is exactly the kind of massive failure in cognition I'm looking for.

You may revise your opinion on cup-holders if you ever spend 3 hours a day commuting on a regular basis.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-30T12:59:33.417Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You may revise your opinion on cup-holders if you ever spend 3 hours a day commuting on a regular basis.

I know quite a few Europeans who do commute.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-27T10:32:49.743Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(we have an unobtrusive cup-holder between the backs of the front seats, I don't remember ever using it)

I keep loose change in it for when I need it when (say) paying motorway tolls, as my father does; it had never occurred to me to use it for anything else. IIRC my mother keeps stuff like crucifixes and medals of saints in it, and the couple cars I glanced into on my way from the parking lot this morning also contained non-cups such as pieces of paper.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T21:26:52.472Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

we have an unobtrusive cup-holder between the backs of the front seats

Ah, that one. I keep loose change in it for when I have to pay motorway tolls, as my father does. It had never occurred to me to use it for anything else.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-03-30T01:06:11.934Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not quick in jumping to conclusions. None of these objections hold any water.

  • Including good cupholders is trivial. Good cupholders hold cups. The cupholders in a Toyota Camry are great cupholders. They hold small or large cups firmly, and the cups never fall down. This is not a hard design problem. Yet many cars have featured no cupholders, a single cupholder, two tiny cupholders two inches deep that can't hold cups, cupholders too narrow to hold anything large than a 12-oz soda, or collapsible cupholders that collapse.

  • Impede a driver? Impede airbags? Be serious. There's a massive area of real estate around the armrest, and between the armrest and the stick shift, and in front of the stick shift. A Crown Victoria has a good 3 feet of completely unused space there, and no cup-holder, to the dismay of cops everywhere. It would take another 1 centimeter of width to put good cup-holders in most cars. Secure from spilling? Now you're arguing against yourself. I was pointing out that many cupholders are not secure from spilling, and you object that cupholders are not made secure from spilling because the automakers might get sued if they're not secure from spilling.

  • Real estate is at a premium, but nobody has ever complained (that I've seen) that the cupholders in their car were too big and ugly, except for a few Lotus drivers defending Lotus' old policy of not making cupholders because you shouldn't be drinking in a Lotus. It only takes an extra centimeter or two required to go from "totally nonfunctional" to "superior".

  • Outside of the US, people buy cars that are made to be sold outside the US. Inside the US, we buy cars made to be sold in the US.

comment by RichardHughes · 2013-03-26T14:28:48.739Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Can you find that article about cupholder man-years?

comment by Kawoomba · 2013-03-26T14:44:24.415Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'll check again, it wasn't in English though. It was a few years back, about a German engineer who supposedly had to devote more than a year just to the cupholder. It could have been 31,557,600 engineers who were assigned to the task for one second each, one of those two extrema.

comment by gjm · 2013-03-27T00:50:06.469Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted for using 365.25 rather than 365. (Though of course a working year is not a full year of 24-hour days, and the real figure should be 365.2425 or something.)

comment by Kawoomba · 2013-03-27T10:07:10.817Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yay Yahoo Answers wins again.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2013-03-26T14:55:19.054Z · score: 24 (32 votes) · LW · GW

How I pattern-match this post:

"Here is an unsolved problem from a domain I hold no expertise in. The fact it is not solved suggests that not enough effort is being applied to it. More effort should be applied to it. I am somehow more clever than the people in this domain for noticing this. After all, how hard could it be?"

Experience teaches me that the base rate for holding and expressing this sentiment, and being correct about it, is incredibly low.

comment by mwengler · 2013-03-26T15:42:09.303Z · score: 6 (14 votes) · LW · GW

I submit to you the iPhone. Developed by a company that had never built a cellphone or any other kind of phone for that matter before. Developed in to an industry that spent billions every year thrashing about trying (it thought) EVERYTHING to see how to build a phone that would exploit data in a way which would compel all those who saw it to want one if not actually buy it.

Apple didn't do anything that it wouldn't have been easier for a larger more expert cell phone maker (Nokia, Motorola leap to mind) to do. And the iPhone blasted it out of the park and completely defined the current generation of smart phones virtually immediately upon its becoming available.

Perhaps the rate for being correct is low, but the times it is correct are powerful.

The idea that automakers are not as "stupid" about some design assumptions as the collective entrenched cell phone makers prior to the iPhone were, how likely does that seem? My experience teaches me I would be shocked if it weren't at least as true with automakers as it is with cell phone companies. Automaking is an even harder field for a newbie to come in to, but they do manage it once in a while.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2013-03-26T16:03:54.110Z · score: 10 (16 votes) · LW · GW

I don't disagree with you as such, but I don't see why you're saying this. Ground-breaking industry game-changers are highly available examples by their nature, but they're also far from typical examples.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-03-30T00:31:06.414Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"PhilGoetz says maybe this is an instance of X. I asserted that X happens so rarely that we can assume it never happens. Why are you bothering me with your instance of X?"

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-03-26T15:51:58.663Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I know, Steve Jobs was an extreme example of the CEO using themself as model for their customers. Any thoughts about how often that works out well?

comment by mwengler · 2013-03-27T00:12:35.747Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In high tech with novelty perhaps we think these things must always be focus-grouped.

But wouldn't fashion be an example of an industry where the novelty is tested by trying to sell it from the runway, and the successful designers, who presumably are greatly outnumbered by unsuccessful designers, have the success of their predicting what people will want labeled as "having taste?"

Jobs was said to have taste, and in a hauntingly beautiful interview you can hear him complaining about Gates/Microsoft that the real problem with them is that they don't have taste. It could be that some industries are much easier to succeed in by taste alone where others really do defy taste and need market testing.

Perhaps in some industries, succeeding by having taste is rarer than in others. But I would be interested in any particular innovations which really were game changers which were introduced through a more systematic process and were not the result of a small number of designers taking a shot in the dark.

Its hard to account it exactly, but if we estimate that the iPhone is worth 1/10 of Apple's value, then it is/was a $40 billion idea. And this jumping ahead of companies that had built model after model of cell phone to generally great reviews (Nokia and Motorola spring to mind).

So counting numerically, it might be rare to the vanishing point. But weighted by impact, I'd say genius levels of taste are the part of innovation that is most interesting.

Of course this doesn't mean that Jaguar should have put more cupholders in their cars sooner than they did, but it also doesn't prove they shouldn't have. Considering Jaguar used Lucas Electrics with a legendary failure rate from doing so for decades, it seems likely to me that Jaguar and other manufacturers have always had a lot to gain by being better at challenging their old mistakes.

By the way, I remember admiring all the clever and useful places that Honda had put cupholders and other useful pockets and surfaces in the Odyssey around the time my daughter thought I was an idiot for buying a Mercedes. There absolutely were car companies who paid attention to things in design that other companies didn't, and those companies have higher market shares now than they did decades ago.

comment by level · 2013-03-28T03:06:56.142Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Apple didn't do anything that it wouldn't have been easier for a larger more expert cell phone maker (Nokia, Motorola leap to mind) to do.

Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported that Nokia designed smartphones and tablets well before Apple:

More than seven years before Apple Inc. rolled out the iPhone, the Nokia team showed a phone with a color touch screen set above a single button. The device was shown locating a restaurant, playing a racing game and ordering lipstick. In the late 1990s, Nokia secretly developed another alluring product: a tablet computer with a wireless connection and touch screen—all features today of the hot-selling Apple iPad.

comment by mwengler · 2013-03-28T15:05:13.129Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported that Nokia designed smartphones and tablets well before Apple:

Everybody in the cell phone industry designed smartphones well before Apple. I am and was in the industry and we used to sit around wondering "what is the killer app for data" which would make the public do what we knew they must do, flock to smartphones.

Then the iPhone came out and solved the problem. After every major player and many startups had taken their shot at it.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2016-07-01T18:40:16.860Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Smart phones are primarily pocket-sized PCs. Many of their most-attractive features could be developed only with strong expertise in computer and computer-interface design. Apple was world-class in these areas. Granted, the additional feature of being a phone was outside of Apple's wheelhouse. Nonetheless, Apple could contribute strong expertise to all but one of the features in the sum

(features of a pocket-sized PC) + (the feature of being a phone).

Somehow, this one remaining feature (phoning) got built into the name "smart phone". But the success of the iPhone is due to how well the other features were implemented. It turned out that being a phone could be done sufficiently well without expertise in building phones, given strong expertise in building pocket-sized PCs.

In general terms, Apple identified an X (phones) that could be improved by adding Y (features of PCs). They set themselves to making X+Y. Crucially, Y was something in which Apple already had tremendous expertise. True, the PC features would have to be constrained by the requirement of being a phone. (Otherwise, you get this.) But the hardest part of that is miniaturization, and Apple already had expertise in this, too. So, Apple had expertise in Y and in a major part of combining X and Y.

In other words, this was not a case of a non-expert beating experts at their own game. It was a case of a Y-expert beating the X-experts (or Xperts, if you will) at making X+Y.

On the other hand, PhilGoetz identified an X (cars) that could be improved by adding Y (good cup-holders). In contrast to Apple's case, Phil displays no expertise in Y at all. In particular, he displays no expertise at the hardest part of combining X and Y, which getting the cup-holder to fit in the car without getting in the way of anything else more important.

If Phil turned out to be right, it really would be a case of a non-expert beating the experts. So it would be much more surprising than Apple's beating Nokia.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-03-30T00:28:52.230Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

That was why I made this post. My purpose is not to solve the cup-holder problem, but to ask whether such mistakes exist.

Designing a car is such a complicated process that there are many ways things could fall through the cracks. Such as final approval for designs being given in Japan or Europe, where people perhaps don't value cup-holders as highly.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-03-27T21:24:07.722Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Tell that to MetaMed.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2013-03-27T23:07:35.469Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

That seems like a poor example. as well as a staggeringly untested one.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-03-27T00:55:37.148Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Homer Simpson pointed this out in 1991.

Homer: All right, you eggheads! I want a place in this car to put my drink!
Engineer: Sir, the-the car has a beverage holder.
Homer: Hello! Hello, Einstein! I said a place to put my drink. You know those Super Slakers they sell at the Kwik-E-Mart? (Makes a large circle with his hands.) The cup is this big!

Incidentally, the biggest problem with the car Homer ends up designing is the price tag - it doesn't matter whether or not the "Homer Simpsons" of the world want the car if they can't afford to buy it. (I've read wise guys saying that Homer was probably more in touch with the car-buying public than the writers thought, claiming that Homer Simpson's design resembles the SUVs that started becoming popular in the U.S. in the 1990s.)

comment by shminux · 2013-03-26T16:15:53.028Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Any other examples of this reference class (whatever it is)?

comment by mare-of-night · 2013-04-11T17:40:28.045Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not entirely sure what the reference class is either, but my brain matched this to my professors' lectures about paying attention to users/customers. (Most of these in undergraduate university classes in things like human computer interaction, web design, and data modeling.) I haven't had a real job yet, but I'm told that designers failing to focus on what users actually want is a major problem in software and web design. (Though it's getting better.)

These are the examples I could think of off the top of my head:

  • Browsers with big toolbars that leave you with not enough space for the web page
  • Facebook's web design (I don't use Facebook much, but I have difficulty finding things when I do. It also seems to be routine by now for Facebook's design changes to completely change the layout, and for users to complain very loudly when they do.)
  • Possibly Windows 8's metro mode - I have not used it myself, but I'm told that it's the default for non-mobile computers and works terribly for them. Whether this matches depends on what the exact reference class is - Microsoft was trying something new, but it seems like the sort of thing they might have noticed in testing.
  • I see Tumblr users doing a lot of odd things to get around the built-in constraints. Things like posting screenshots of "asks" as photos and writing the reply below them (instead of replying normally), because captioned photos can be reblogged but asks cannot. Whether or not this is easily fixable depends on how well written Tumblr's source code is, but it doesn't seem like it should be a difficult problem to solve.
  • The default toolbars of Microsoft Office products include rarely-used functions (which makes it harder for typical users to find the things they actually want to use)
  • University or corporate homepages that don't emphasize the things that people actually come to the website to find - I suspect this happens when a committee picks what goes on the homepage, which makes it become a matter of politics instead of design

Doors are the classic non-software example - designing doors that people don't try to push when they need to pull (or vice versa) is supposedly a solved problem (give a handle that doesn't look pushable when you need to pull, and metal plate instead of a handle when you need to push), but designers don't always do that, probably because they focus on making something nice looking rather than practical. I suspect that sinks with knobs instead of lever-type faucet handles are still made for the same reason.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-03-26T06:17:53.196Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Just to add to the mystery, the people in charge of manufacturing presumably cared about cupholders themselves, and still didn't see the importance of the issue.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-03-26T10:20:55.447Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How do you know that?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-03-26T12:59:49.143Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I put it a little too strongly, but if a high proportion of people have shown themselves to care about cupholders, it's plausible that a high proportion of car executives care about cupholders.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-03-26T14:00:52.252Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2013-03-26T05:39:35.197Z · score: 4 (32 votes) · LW · GW

I find it perfectly plausible that all the car manufacturers are insane.

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2013-03-26T05:45:20.184Z · score: 29 (33 votes) · LW · GW

The LW memeplex may be somewhat too ready to buy into the hypothesis that a given group of people is insane. People do generally respond to incentives, and situations where there are large incentives that people aren't responding to are probably worth an explanation more descriptive than generic insanity.

Given what I understand to be the dominant stereotypes about American cars, though, I do think it's plausible that American car manufacturers are insane. I don't know about others.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2013-03-26T07:01:45.527Z · score: 21 (29 votes) · LW · GW

Incentives? Which specific person gets fired because people are complaining about car cupholders? If the answer is "I can't point to anyone like that" then nobody has an incentive to fix car cupholders.

comment by khafra · 2013-03-26T12:02:57.816Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I'd bet at 4 to 1 that a VP who earned a manufacturer's economy line a reputation as "those cars with the awesome cupholders" would have a much clearer path to the C-suite; but it seems difficult to empirically test.

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2013-03-26T07:33:56.153Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Point. I was thinking that whoever comes up with ideas for stuff car companies should be doing has incentives to come up with good ideas, but I guess there are various plausible reasons that isn't enough (responsibility could be too diffuse, people might not feel like they'll end up getting enough credit for a good idea...).

comment by orthonormal · 2013-03-26T18:58:52.467Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Who's going to give an auto designer any credit for a completely boring and obvious idea like "larger cupholders"? The incentives are almost certainly in the direction of affiliating oneself with higher-status design changes (satellite radio, integration with apps and Internet, etc) rather than lower-status ones.

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2013-03-26T20:07:45.711Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Point. (See, that's an actual explanation and not just a generic appeal to insanity.)

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-27T23:54:10.154Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What?

Capitalism doesn't work by reputation- if I develop a feed formula for cows that makes their shit more beneficial as a fertilizer, then Monsanto and others will beat a path to my door. (Unless they steal it, but same thing.)

The incentives come from money, and as Vespasian said, "Pecunia non olet." (Money does not stink)

If you're talking about someone working for a large company and designing something mundane but better, the incentives may be more diffuse, but I don't believe that lost purposes are so terribly entrenched that the incentive is effectively invisible.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-03-30T01:17:55.439Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

In my personal experience, designers/innovators working for companies are never rewarded for making their company more money. Sometimes their bosses are. My boss got a $20,000 bonus when I saved NASA $40 million.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-03-27T21:39:23.863Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It sounds to me like you're suggesting, without any supporting evidence, that everyone everywhere only does the minimum amount of work necessary to not get fired.

I'd guess this is true at a minority of organizations, and that it largely depends on an organization's culture. Is it true at MIRI?

Edit: Some arguments that large companies are getting less incompetent. I'm sure I could identify lots of top-selling business books that cover the topic of how to motivate your workers to create great products for your company. It seems a little implausible that none of what they suggest works. And as time passes, I'd expect for more and more such books to be published, and the books with the best advice to be read and recommended more and more widely.

comment by ChristianKl · 2016-06-30T10:43:43.806Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It sounds to me like you're suggesting, without any supporting evidence, that everyone everywhere only does the minimum amount of work necessary to not get fired.

People who work on cars likely care about things besides not getting fired but they might not care about producing better cupholders. An interior designer might care a lot more about the fact that the interior looks good than that it's functional.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-03-27T22:52:44.633Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sure I could identify lots of top-selling business books that cover the topic of how to motivate your workers to create great products for your company. It seems a little implausible that none of what they suggest works.

Is that a special case of a more general belief that if there are lots of top-selling books about how to do X, it follows that people can do X in an intentional/systematic way? Or is there something special about motivating workers here?

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-03-28T01:17:32.640Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I find it implausible that the threat of being fired is the only good way to motivate workers. It definitely seems like some companies are much better run than others, doesn't it? How do you think the best-run ones are well run? Probably by hiring the best people and having a great corporate culture. Here's a good Aaron Swartz piece on this.

Is that a special case of a more general belief that if there are lots of top-selling books about how to do X, it follows that people can do X in an intentional/systematic way?

To a degree I'd expect that to be true, especially if the books are written by smart, credible people, which is how I tend to perceive the authors of the best business books. Certainly much more credible than the folks who write books on how to win the lottery scientifically.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-03-28T03:52:22.760Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Like you, I find it implausible that the threat of being fired is the only good way to motivate workers. Indeed, for many jobs I don't even think it's a good way.

I think the best-run companies are well-run by virtue of individuals in positions of influence who are good at running companies. Hiring good people is a symptom of that, as is having a great corporate culture. A poorly run company won't suddenly get better if the CEO decides "Oh, I know! Let's hire the best people and have a great corporate culture!" unless said CEO develops skill at running companies.

Regardless, thanks for answering my question.

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-03-30T14:24:01.025Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

To a degree I'd expect that to be true, especially if the books are written by smart, credible people, which is how I tend to perceive the authors of the best business books. Certainly much more credible than the folks who write books on how to win the lottery scientifically.

Isn't that because you don't already believe "people can [win the lottery] in an intentional/systematic way", but you do believe "people can [motivate workers] in an intentional/systematic way"?

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-03-30T23:04:03.128Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'd expect the authors of the best business books (e.g. Andy Grove, Tony Hsieh) to have experience managing top corporations, or get paid to consult for managers of top corporations. Those are tasks that require intelligence and rationality to succeed at and consist of more than just motivating your workers. I'd expect that if there was no way to motivate workers in an intentional/systematic way, these smart, rational people would have said that in their books and it would be a truism in the business world. Instead, the truism is just the opposite.

I also think that things people take to be common sense should be given a strong prior in general. I see essentially no reason to believe that the threat of getting fired is the only thing that motivates anyone, so it's a bit frustrating to see you (apparently) privileging that hypothesis (because the great Eliezer, who has never managed anyone or worked at a for-profit corporation, suggested it?) when common sense holds the opposite.

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-03-30T23:40:37.571Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Possibly I've been reading too much Dilbert, but I expect that books detailing brilliant new management insights would thrive regardless of the actual existence of such insights.

That said, I, like you, have a higher prior for employee motivation than lottery-winning. I just think this preexisting (perfectly rational) prior is your true rejection.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T15:38:26.124Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW · GW

There's a tendency (at least in this post's comments) to throw around the word "insane" as a synonym for "LW-style irrational". It does not mean what you think it means.

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2013-03-26T20:07:20.931Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I know how Eliezer is using the word "insane."

comment by Pavitra · 2013-03-27T12:05:15.990Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Just because $CELEBRITY uses it that way doesn't make it right. This usage is conflating two usefully distinct concepts.

comment by ThrustVectoring · 2013-03-27T00:46:55.075Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

If I'm reading this correctly, this can be summarized with the principle-agent problem. Getting the cupholders right doesn't have incentives that line up with their relative importance for the car industry - my guess is that a large part of it is being a less prestigious work assignment. This is based off of "if I was really into cars, what would I want to work on?" Engines, aerodynamics, and control systems top the list - lots of complexity, and it's something that is obviously difficult to get right (hence, you must be an awesome engineer if you can get it right).

comment by knb · 2013-03-26T20:50:00.031Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Given what I understand to be the dominant stereotypes about American cars, though, I do think it's plausible that American car manufacturers are insane.

Ironically, I've noticed that European cars have the worst cupholders.

comment by prase · 2013-03-27T22:02:45.173Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Because Europeans don't use them.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-03-26T06:48:10.631Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

This is related to a common problem among certain types of engineers and scientists, which is to think of anything easy to do as not enough fun and hence beneath oneself. Heck, I have this problem sometimes.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T17:02:44.773Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Heck, I have this problem sometimes.

Try working on easy stuff when too tired (i.e. willpower-depleted) to work on hard stuff. (This is called structured procrastination.)

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2013-04-03T10:54:09.274Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

My brother does relevant work for a big auto firm in Europe; I pointed him at this discussion and this was his commentary:

Wow, a pretty long discusion in just 3 days and somehow it still manages to get back to "is apple really that clever?". I think most of the points were made - the centre console is the most valuable piece of real estate in a car, and two super-size McD cups take up a LOT of space. Then add in new European 0.33l slim cans (red bull design) which fall over in big cupholders and the problem gets quite tricky. Also what customers complain about depends a lot on how the questionnaires we (the car industry) send them are costructed - I suspect the north american surveys have several questions on cupholders and fewer on say visibility, wind noise or paint quality.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T15:15:20.438Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Are you sure this is such a pervasive trend? All of the luxury cars I've ever been in have had good, if sometimes absurd (I'm looking at you, Porsche), cup-holders.

comment by mwengler · 2013-03-26T15:35:44.759Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I have a 2005 Mercedes CLK320a, a 4-seater convertible we bought so we could when we wanted to bring our young kids around and still have a convertible. The thing has ONE cupholder in the entire car, in the front reachable by both passenger and driver. I invite you to go in my car if you are in the neighborhood (north county sandy eggo) so you won't have to say stuff like your previous comment any more. By the way, when I told my then 7 year old daughter that our new 4 seater with one cupholder cost more than her friends new Honda Odyssey witih 3 rows of seats, electric doors, and a dvd player in the back, she thought I was the stupidest man on earth.

comment by shminux · 2013-03-26T16:18:49.019Z · score: 9 (15 votes) · LW · GW

when I told my then 7 year old daughter that our new 4 seater with one cupholder cost more than her friends new Honda Odyssey with 3 rows of seats, electric doors, and a dvd player in the back, she thought I was the stupidest man on earth.

And boy, was she right.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T15:57:35.664Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sorry for your loss?

What does this have to do with my comment...?

comment by gjm · 2013-03-26T17:19:01.090Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

mwengler is offering the 2005 Mercedes CLK320a as an example of a luxury car that doesn't have "good, if sometimes absurd" cupholders, as a counterpoint to your own reported experience of always finding good cupholders in luxury cars.

comment by BlazeOrangeDeer · 2013-03-31T05:09:28.955Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You can't have a counterpoint to someone's experience. He always found luxury cars to have good cupholders. You can't say he's wrong about that...

comment by gjm · 2013-03-31T14:02:37.319Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I said "counterpoint", not "counterexample" or "contradiction". I'm sure paper-machine's experience is just as he says. On the other hand, clearly some other people's experience differs. It's worth noting the latter to give context to the former.

comment by Thomas · 2013-03-26T17:07:04.730Z · score: -6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

How the usual mantra goes? Something like "this is a site devoted to the human rationality and we are much too cool for something like this ..."

comment by Salivanth · 2013-03-27T02:39:14.250Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

But this is a rather interesting example of rationality at work. It's useful for a couple of reasons.

1) There's a clear indication here of incorrect beliefs leading to unwanted consequences. In this case, a downplay of the importance of cup holders is leading to the loss of profit that could otherwise be gained.

2) It's fairly trivial and simple, which is actually a good thing in it's favor. It's not technical, meaning we can all understand what's going on, and it's extremely unlikely anyone is going to have an entrenched belief about cup holders already that makes rational discourse more difficult.

The simplicity of the example is a point in it's favor. We're not attempting to fix the cupholder problem here, we're looking at explanations of why it might exist in order to improve our model of things.

comment by Thomas · 2013-03-27T07:22:17.843Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It is not that simple and trivial at all. Some pointed out that fact, the problems with safety, all the measures and so forth. We don't want a hot coffee spill over the driver, for example. I think, the auto industry is telling us - it's better to stop and refresh yourself. It will be another story in fully automated cars.