Plump my ride!

Carmakers all over the world are finding it necessary to ‘up-size’ their offerings as a result of the ever expanding global waistline. Over the last fifty years, the average family car has become more than a foot wider and almost double the weight. The problem has become so acute that BMW has actually recruited a team of some 800 volunteers for a study on how obesity affects driving, in a plan that has been dubbed ‘Plump my ride’ after the TV show with a similar name.

“People are getting more obese and we want to find out how that limits their range of motion and how our vehicles can adapt to the changing needs of our customers,” Ralf Kaiser, a member of BMW’s ergonomics team said. “We know that a lot of overweight and obese people have problems in daily life, and in the car this starts with getting in and getting out. In general, these aren’t sporty people. We already have things like the parking distance control, which shows obstacles on a screen when you are reversing.”

Over the past decade, Honda has been wrestling with the battle of the bulge as well with a widening of their seats by two inches and newly designed buttons to accommodate “sausage fingers”. Ford has followed suit and now the average width of a seat in one of their cars has swelled to 23 inches nowadays, up 5 inches from the 18 inches it offered in 1953. Porsche will add an electrically-powered steering column to their high end models that raises the steering column when the power is turned off to allow their more portly customers to exit more comfortably.

Worrying about our expanding size isn’t new for the car industry – it’s said that obesity is the original reason for installing cameras and screens used for backing up – we’re just getting too heavy to turn all the way around and look. In fact you could say that car manufacturers are getting concerned about ‘heavy traffic’.

Even if you are a Johnny Lightweight, this should concern you. Heavy cars make for poor fuel consumption and most governments have the use of ever smaller cars as a cornerstone of future transportation policy. “Growing waistlines simply prevent many motorists from feeling comfortable or secure in a small car,” according to Dan Cheung, VP at business consulting firm AT Kearney. “We may be destined to keep driving ever bigger cars no matter how much the cost of petrol in the future.” He may have a point as sales figure for the first half of the year for small cars in the USA stood at 22.6%, down from the 28% in 2008 when petrol prices were at US$4 per gallon.


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