volvos for vulvas
December 18, 2003 8:11 AM   Subscribe

"The car has...a headrest with a valley down the center for women who wear their hair in ponytails." At Volvo, an all-female project team is designing a concept car for women -- which makes for some interesting features (like a car without a hood) as well as some curious tales from a (temporarily) female-dominated workplace. More inside...
posted by serafinapekkala (53 comments total)
I'm no greasemonkey, but I found it a little dismissive that these female car designers decided women don't know or care about simple car maintenance, to the point of not ever needing to open the hood -- just let the onboard computer contact the nice mechanic man!

But aside from that bit of carping, I liked the article's investigation of how this estrogenic work group shook up the company culture a bit. One man who worked with the group recalled, "I remember a meeting, where I was the only man, and something came up on the agenda, and everyone started talking at once. Something was decided on, and everyone knew what the decision was except me." I know just how he feels, except I'm the only woman in a room full of male lawyers and it happens all the time, not just once. Enjoy, fellas. :P
posted by serafinapekkala at 8:16 AM on December 18, 2003

I'll asssume it's a stick shift.
posted by jonmc at 8:18 AM on December 18, 2003

Gull-wing doors look very cool, but they're not practical at all. I don't know if you'd be able to get in or out of your car in a parking ramp.
posted by COBRA! at 8:20 AM on December 18, 2003

I thought a lot of the ideas were good: dirt-resistant paint, 225 hp engine, race-car sty fuel filler. You certainly don't need to be a woman to like these things. I have to agree that no hood is not good, although lifting up the entire front end like a vette or XKE is cool. And I have a ponytail, so I like that idea, too. I think we need more female designers.
posted by TedW at 8:24 AM on December 18, 2003

I love the idea about space for my pony tail. Driving with your head slightly forward is very uncomfortable. Now, if we can only get rid of those head "rests" (more like neck killers) on airplane seats for us short people.

This project makes total sense. I mentioned the idea of the concept car to my husband and he looked at me like, and your point is? His response: Women buy cars too.

Oh, I also love the idea about no gas cap. When it's snowing and you have your gloves on the cap is such a pain in the ass!
posted by evening at 8:28 AM on December 18, 2003

They clearly want a car as strong as a gorilla yet soft and yielding like a nerf ball.
posted by jon_kill at 8:34 AM on December 18, 2003

Pardon my mechanical ignorance, but oil changes every 30k miles? How is that possible?
posted by yangwar at 8:37 AM on December 18, 2003

Will the cigarette lighter be replaced with lipstick? Ranchero....
posted by Cool Alex at 8:39 AM on December 18, 2003

Gullwing doors are monstrous creations. Sometimes I wonder if they were invented specifically to torture humanity.
posted by aramaic at 8:40 AM on December 18, 2003

I agree with TedW - As I read the list of "female-friendly" features (easy to clean, easy to park, 30K oil change, no gas cap, good storage), I didn't find one that makes this particularly suited towards women - who wouldn't want any of those things improved on a car?
posted by adamms222 at 8:44 AM on December 18, 2003

The title of this thread reminds me of a friend who, when driving, would shout out things like "Vulva in a Volvo!" "Poontang in a Mustang!"

He was fun on road trips.

I love the machine washable seat covers. Agree with what everyone has said about lack of access to the engine. That's just asking for trouble. No matter how tiny the problem, you have to take it to a mechanic, and one who has the appropriate technology to get into your car, which probably means you are limited to the dealership. I know there are excellent dealership mechanics out there, but I personally have always had better luck with smaller garages, and I'd like the option to take my car wherever I'd like. And at least be able to look at the engine and say, "Huh. I have no idea. But I feel better for having looked."

However, I'd be okay with an electric signal that maybe triggered a phone call or an email to me to remind me to get the car serviced. I forget that all the time.
posted by jennyb at 8:45 AM on December 18, 2003

nice post title, by the way, serafinapekkala
posted by adamms222 at 8:46 AM on December 18, 2003

The photo's caption says that the women "are part of a mostly all-woman team within Volvo." What the heck does that mean? Is it different from an all mostly-woman team? I sense a gimmick. Anyway, it reminds me of what kitchen designers reluctantly concluded in the 1950s: that women didn't want a truly modern home -- what they wanted was a better-upholstered cave. Personally, I doubt that a car this radically different would sell, even if it's immensely practical in its own right. There's an inherent impracticality in things that are this different.
posted by coelecanth at 8:54 AM on December 18, 2003

So according to this, the women this car is targeted at can't (or can't be bothered to):

* fold seats forward
* work a gas cap
* change a flat
* park
* perform routine maintenance - or even remember when it's due

They can, however, afford to take their car to the dealer for every little thing.

Okaaay....I know a few that would beg to differ.

(BTW, as a Volvo owner my[guy]self, I've always wondered why their hood ornament is the male symbol. Anyone?)
posted by gottabefunky at 9:09 AM on December 18, 2003

can someone explain exactly how a car can "take over the steering to parallel park"? Does it have a little swishy red light on the front too?
posted by boltman at 9:09 AM on December 18, 2003

A 30,000 mile oil change interval is possible. Oil needs to be changed because the suspended solids accrue, and the particles (molecular strings, basically) break and become less lubricative. I can think of 2 things that would contribute to extended oil life:

1. A larger oil reservoir would mean that each particle of oil would be used less often, so would have more "down time," thereby extending oil life. I imagine that if nothing else were changed, a oil supply of 2x normal would result in an oil life of at least 4x the normal time.

2. A centrifugal oil filter can separate out the solids that accrue in engine oil. My old Fiat 850 has one - in lieu of any standard kind of oil filter -- and it only has to be taken apart and cleaned out every 30,000 miles or so (I think - I don't have the manual in front of me). With that kind of oil cleaning ability, the oil can last much longer.

That aside, I'll chime in with my agreement with other posters that these are not gender-specific improvements. In general, genderization of inanimate objects is unnecessary and usually strikes me as something that would be quaint if it were to occur in the 1950's but is simply ridiculous now.

Furthermore, from a marketing perspective, it is stupid to alienate 50% (roughly) of your potential market for a product.

Oh and the whole hood-sealed, mechanic-only-maintenance, is absolutely a turn-off. Granted, many people of both genders don't want anything to do with maintenance and repair, but to eliminate the option to do so is asinine.

In fact, I think that there should be a lively market available for a car manufacturer to design a vehicle that is intended for DIY maintenance and repair. Make every regular maintenance item easy to access; include all required information in the owner's manual (so the owner doesn't have to get a Haynes-type manual); etc. Anymore these days, cars are intentionally designed to discourage DIY-ers; a buck to that trend would have instant attention.
posted by yesster at 9:11 AM on December 18, 2003

gottabefunky: The Volvo logo is the alchemical symbol for iron, which is I guess what the cars used to be made of - I have a book about the P1800 called "Swedish Iron".
posted by nicwolff at 9:19 AM on December 18, 2003

My other car is a hummer.
posted by a3matrix at 9:37 AM on December 18, 2003

In a certain way it's interesting, though, that a group of female engineers came up with a bunch of features that appeal to both genders. It would seem to prove the idea that women are fully capable of producing non-gendered products, not just pink Barbie cars.

Which would seem to be an argument in favor of hiring more women in the regular engineering positions: they have good ideas that might help the company, period.
posted by occhiblu at 9:42 AM on December 18, 2003

There's an interesting quote in the Jan '04 issue of Esquire from Bob Lutz, the chairman of GM N. America:
The one thing we know doesn't work is when men get together and say, "Let's do a car for the ladies." It always winds up as some horrible sexist insult to the female race, like little umbrellas in tubes alongside the seats, tissue boxes, perfume dispensers, little hooks for hanging the handbag, and so on. Every time that's been tried, it just infuriates the women.
I hope this band of mostly pseudo half all women design team can do better.
posted by JVey at 9:42 AM on December 18, 2003

The ideas are great... and yeah, they're gender-neuter... but apparently it took a team of women (or folks that were mostly woman) to come up with them.

The hood : ditto. Bad idea. I never want to go under the hood, myself... but that doesn't mean I don't want to have my car-positive friend, family member, neighbor, or significant other do it for me (for free).

Doors : I thought about the doors, and the one advantage of a well designed wing door is that it would be great during inclement weather — no more of that close the umbrella–shove it in the back–jump into the car dance — just open the door, then duck under the awning to close and shake dry the umbrella, or to remove the coat, store them all in the easily accessible rear, and step in.

Gas cap : about time!

Windshield wiper fluid : ditto!
posted by silusGROK at 9:47 AM on December 18, 2003

What's a "pseudo half all woman" ?

Windshield wiper fluid : ditto!
Next to the gas though? You know somebody's gonna make a nasty mistake early some morning...
posted by badstone at 9:49 AM on December 18, 2003

I like the pedals dropping in an accident, too. But the hood thing is just nuts. Aside from the maintenance issue, it makes neighborliness harder -- you couldn't even give someone a jump if they needed one!
posted by nickmark at 9:52 AM on December 18, 2003

No man would drive a car that's targeted to women. No way. If he does, even taking it to the nearest convenience store for a six-pack and immediately back home, he is elligible to an unrelentless amount of shit from his homies. Sorry, men are dorks.

Women, on the other hand, being the enlightened beings they are, have no such issues - i.e. driving a "man's car" (if such thing exists).

So, IMHO, these women can work all they want, and insert a couple of "women-friendly" features in Volvo future products, but a car targeted specifically to women will never hit the market, and if it does, it would be a big flop.
posted by falameufilho at 9:54 AM on December 18, 2003

SilusGROK: one huge problem with gullwings is that, by opening at the bottom, you effectively prevent anyone from getting out if there's an obstruction near the door.

...if a regular car door can only open, say 12 inches (because the parking lot designer put the spaces too close together & an H2 pulled in next to you), you end up with a twelve-inch vertical space that you can maneuver your body through, allowing you to exit or reenter your car.

A gullwing door, in the same situation, gives you a twelve inch space at the bottom. Where you can't get out.

And that's saying nothing about what a pain in the ass they are for tall people. I've driven a gullwing on a couple of occasions (note: always in big cities. Maybe they're more usable in suburbia), and they suck. They suck rocks.
posted by aramaic at 9:57 AM on December 18, 2003

Which would seem to be an argument in favor of hiring more women in the regular engineering positions: they have good ideas that might help the company, period.

And this is something that needs to be pointed out -- that women can have good ideas?

Or are you using a different idea of what "good idea" means - like an idea that helps women is good, but with qualifications. If it helps men too, then it's actually good, period.

I doubt you meant it like that, occhiblu, but go back and read what you're implying. :)
posted by adzuki at 9:59 AM on December 18, 2003

yesster - Sure, using twice the oil and some sort of separator can prolong oil life significantly. But what about the various ways gas and water get into the oil? Nowadays, manufacturers recommend oil changes every 7500 miles, but I only go that long when I've been driving 600 miles at a stretch. 30k sounds more like a boardroom goal and less like a practical, design-level goal.

That said, it is amusing that it took women to come up with some of these ideas. However, I'll have to agree with the above posters who noted that it seems like they're marketing to people who want all of the advantages of personal internal-combustion-engine transportation, and none of the responsibilities.
posted by notsnot at 10:00 AM on December 18, 2003

Well, to start with this is specifically intended as a concept car. Since when has more than one or two ideas from a concept car ever made it into production in any given year. My spousal unit, who pays a bit more attention to the fashion industry, points out that the "high fashion" costumes that make the newspapers are intended to be outrageous and unweareable in order to draw attention to the company's more conservative lines of clothing.

Concept cars are not intended to be driven except from the show platform to the semi-trailer. So I expect that some things like the gullwing doors and the hood are thrown on there to get people talking about the car, rather than intended for actual production sometime in the next decade. Not nearly as radical as the drive by wire designs without any pedals.

I suspect that the problem of confusing washer fluid and gas will be solved in much the same way it is now. Gas ports are designed to make it difficult to put the wrong fluid in. So it's quite doable in practice.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:14 AM on December 18, 2003

can someone explain exactly how a car can "take over the steering to parallel park"?

Probably the same way the Toyota Prius sold in Japan does it.
posted by kindall at 10:22 AM on December 18, 2003

yesster/notsnot: I had heard that at the average levels of particle mass that get in oil you can run your engine indefinitely with only adjusting for burnt/leaked oil and maybe changing the oil filter and still have the same engine life. So really as long as the engine seals stay intact and oil volume constant 30k doesn't seem to far fetched.

Also, as I have no data to back this up, it seems reasonable so I don't think its necessary to look for any.
posted by Dr_Octavius at 10:35 AM on December 18, 2003

adzuki, the article mentioned that one of the reasons Volvo was doing this was to help "shake up" the very male culture in their engineering department. My comment referred to that -- that the project seems to have proven that female engineers designing Volvo's "mainstream" cars would be a good idea.
posted by occhiblu at 10:36 AM on December 18, 2003

(Not, really, that it should have *needed* to be proven...)
posted by occhiblu at 10:43 AM on December 18, 2003

does it automatically pull off to the side of the road so you can ask directions?
posted by KnitWit at 11:11 AM on December 18, 2003

genderization of inanimate objects

yesster, take a look at these. gaah!
posted by serafinapekkala at 11:13 AM on December 18, 2003

Pony tails are woman only? Give it about a year they'll be in for men. Thought there was already a woman's car, VW's white convertible rabbit.
posted by thomcatspike at 11:52 AM on December 18, 2003

i heart my '85 volvo sedan like little else in this world, but i love it for the very things that it seems like they're trying to eliminate (boxiness, simplicity). i guess that's the way they're trying to make everything these days, where not only do you not need to take care of this expensive toy you've purchased, but you couldn't if you tried. i tend to be a bit of a luddite when it comes to automobiles, an attribute i picked up from my mechanic father.

like everyone, i have to weigh in with a negative vote on the whole hood thing. uggh. that's horrid. i almost feel offended on a couple different levels. on the gender side, i think it's ridiculous to say that women don't want to look under the hood, or even have someone else they know check things out. on a societal level, i think cars are getting closer and closer to that sort of thing, be it man or woman. i'm the only person i know in my age group that changes their own oil, and it seems most have lost the knowledge of just simple maintanance. again, mechanic father, but still.
posted by redsparkler at 12:12 PM on December 18, 2003

In regards to changing the oil, I did it once or twice. Then I realized that while I could spend $10 and a lot of frustration crawling under the car and driving to the recycling center to do my own oil change, or I can clip a coupon and spend $20 at whichever oil change shop has a special that week. Not having an actual garage or carport of my own is another big factor.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:30 PM on December 18, 2003

Furthermore, from a marketing perspective, it is stupid to alienate 50% (roughly) of your potential market for a product.

According to the linked article, women bought 65% of the new cars in the USA last year.
posted by lasm at 1:26 PM on December 18, 2003

Yeah, on the oil change thing for me it's a matter of convenience. I could do it if I want to, but spend a little more and I don't have to deal with the hassle. I finally forced my wife to change the air filter in the one car just to show her how easy it is to do.

I'm wavering on brakes. Now that both my cars have 4 wheel disc brakes, I'm more tempted to do them myself. But I'm also kinda partial to knowing the the car is going to stop after the brakes are changed :).
posted by piper28 at 1:27 PM on December 18, 2003

Serrafina, re: that link, I always wanted a set of frilly tools, so the male people in my life would stop swiping them. I am confident that a hammer with a Barbie-pink handle with a little lace edge would never be borrowed and left out in the rain by my boyfriend.

It should be easier to get to the battery, dipstick, etc., not harder.

Of course women brought different ideas to the table. Why haven't they been hiring and listening to women, and other constituencies, all along?
posted by theora55 at 1:34 PM on December 18, 2003

Yes, the sealed hood is not a good idea (and patronizing to boot). But the other features are great and would probably appeal to both sexes. You have to remember this is the first time a car's been designed mostly by women, and as far as first attempts go it's a pretty good one (at least in theory).

Oh, and I'm assuming "massaging" seats will be a standard feature. I keed, don't bite my head off.
posted by Devils Slide at 1:49 PM on December 18, 2003

Regarding the 30,000 mile oil change, it's not just a pipe dream. The Porsche Boxster has a 15,000 mile oil change interval, and that's a car that's expected to be driven like, well... a Porsche. I'm not sure what all is involved in achieving that goal, except that it takes nine quarts of mobil 1.

And as far as gullwing doors and clearance go, gullwing doors don't require nearly as much horizontal clearance as conventional doors. The Delorean's gullwings only needed 12" of side clearance to operate, which means that if you can squeeze into a conventional car door, you can fully open the gullwing.

All in all this sounds like a cool design, well thought-out and practical with the possible exception of the hood thing. Depending on where they locate the battery, it may still be possible to jump the car without popping the hood, but that still means that there are some simple diagnostics (checking the condition/presence of belts and hoses, accurately locating the source of a sound) that wouldn't be possible, and are often very useful if you're trying to figure out what's wrong with the car ahead of time.
posted by mosch at 2:07 PM on December 18, 2003

Anymore these days, cars are intentionally designed to discourage DIY-ers; a buck to that trend would have instant attention.

That is so true! I had to replace my car's battery today, and it took an hour just to remove it. I looked in the owner's manual, and instead of informing me where to find the innumerable fasteners holding the battery in place, it told me to get he battery replaced at the dealership. Thanks, guys! I'll just magically transport myself back to yesterday, when the battery worked, and drive to the dealership then to have the battery replaced! Jesus H. Christ! I have now replaced batteries in a recently made (1996 and 2000) Ford and VW, and it is abundantly clear that they are trying to discourage owners from replacing batteries themselves. Why? They're afraid we'll throw the old batteries by the side of the road. I guess it doesn't matter that battery buyers pay a fee that's refundable only when they return the old battery.

Based on carmakers' user-unfriendly philosophies, Volvo probably will go ahead with this sans-hood idea. They'll sell it as user-friendliness. Like those signs in stores that say, "For your convenience, our security staff reserves the right to detain you and search through your clothing and all belongings to see if you shoplifted anything."

Sorry, the battery thing put me in a bad mood. Damn German engineers!
posted by Holden at 2:09 PM on December 18, 2003

Quality synthetic oil can go 15,000 -25,000 miles without changing on a regular car. But it doesn't hurt to do it more frequently, and most people that pay for synthetic oil tend to replace it every 5,000 miles anyway just to keep it as clean as possible. Switching to synthetic will keep your car running for a long, long time. And you can go without the oil change for 20k, if you feel like it. This goes for engines that only have a 4-5 quart capacity, too.

Requiring a lift to look at the engine is a bad idea. I like the idea of being able to pull it out like a module, but it should have hood access for smaller jobs, such as fluid refill, vacuum line leak checks, etc. A better idea would be to be able to remove the front hood, panels, and bumpers with quick release locks so the engine is laid bear on all sides save the compartment and under sides.

I don't like the idea of my car contacting a service mechanic via wireless unless it prompts for my approval.

A ponytail valley doesn't affect ponytailless driving, so no problems there... lumbar support is oddly left out.

Capless gas tanks would be anyone's preference... but cars are built to minimize cost to the manufacturer to maximize profit. Otherwise, we'd not only have such a nifty capless gas tank, we'd also have F1 shifter paddles instead of mucking around with the current generation of tiptronic/automanual/steptronic shifters.

We'd also have straight from the factory dry batteries that can be airshipped safely and last 7 years (they're already available for most car battery types... buy an Optima to replace yours today).

High end car lines already have a parallel park guidance system. I remember admiring the one in the BMW M5 a few years ago.

Most of these design ideas have already been thought of or considered, but without the need to add a gender basis for them. I can see the marketability of saying these are considerations for the women drivers out there, but as said above, these are all features most of us would like to have... and many of them do exist already... we just can't afford them.

I wonder just how much this "woman car" would cost....
posted by linux at 3:04 PM on December 18, 2003

I really like many of the proposed inprovements, I'd be curious to take a test drive.
posted by dreamling at 3:42 PM on December 18, 2003

People rest their heads against head rests? Oh, I guess if you're the sleeping passenger.

A lot of these things sound great. Personally, I have no interest in car maintenance and would love to not have to ever remove a gas cap. (Such a simple thing to be rid of, what are we waiting for?)
posted by Dick Paris at 4:00 PM on December 18, 2003

Oil needs to be changed because the suspended solids accrue, and the particles (molecular strings, basically) break and become less lubricative.

And incomplete combustion of gasoline creates various acids, which are absorbed by the oil. This is why you don't want to leave your car idling for long minutes on cold days: the fuel is burning extremely inefficiently, putting a lot more acid into the oil. Best to wait about thirty seconds to ensure the cold oil has been distributed throughout the engine, and then get on the road: it'll heat up faster, burning cleaner.

I change my own oil. It's a fifteen minute job, in part due to a super-duper oil filter remover tool that has cammed arms that clamp down but good on the can. Now if only that damn can were in a more convenient spot!

I change my own disc brakes. It's about five minutes per wheel, and that's only because I like to take my time. It's more difficult to build a good Lego toy than to change disc brakes.

Everyone should be aware that their fuel filter should be replaced on a regular basis. For where I live, once a year is smart (our gas comes via a pipeline that's also used for crude oil. Last change, the gas poured out the intake the colour of mud.)

Air filter, sparks, tire rotation, and coolant change are also dead easy. I think most everyone should be capable of the basic maintenance I've listed. It takes next to no skill nor tools. It does take time and effort, which may be where one would decide that it's worth taking it into a garage instead.

I have also done fuel pump, shocks and struts, alternator, front transmission bearings, etcetera. I'd do the fuel pump again, and I'd probably do the alternator. No way in hell am I ever doing struts and transmission again: those were repair jobs from hell.

At some point here I'm going to do body work, too. Then I think I'll flog the vehicle and get a new car.

Dick: ever heard of full-service gas stations?
posted by five fresh fish at 5:07 PM on December 18, 2003

Is it really common to drive with your head against the headrest? I know I rarely do. But that also means it wouldn't affect me if there is a valley there.

Also, why pour the wiper fluid at the gas tank and then pump it all the way up to the windshield, why not just put a second hole up there?
posted by obfusciatrist at 5:40 PM on December 18, 2003

About the headrest...

I don't drive with my head against the headrest, but when I'm wearing a pony tail my hair will rest against the headrest because of how much space the pony tail takes up behind my head.

It's like driving around with a baseball between your head. (Your head isn't touching the headrest, but it's pushed forward because of the space the ball takes up. Same with a pony tail.)
posted by evening at 6:50 PM on December 18, 2003

Speaking as a woman, they pretty much lost me at the non-opening hood. I was a little insulted by the idea that women-folk wouldn't want to be bothered to ever look under the hood of their own car. But then, I do all the work on my car myself ... so I am probably not typical. I had thought though that more women were capable of changing oil and fluids, changing tires, and generally taking care of the upkeep of an automobile. I guess I was wrong. As my husband said, why didn't they just make the hood lighter/easier to open (some are so heavy I have trouble getting them open), and have everything in the engine compartment well labeled? Why would women never want to open the hood?

Not to mention the expense of running to the dealer every time your car thinks it's needs to, and I can't imagine anything more fun that breaking down on the side of the road and having to wait for a tow truck for something that might only require a few minutes under the hood to straighten out.

The pony tail thing though ... that's cool. I wear pony tails all the time, and it does get annoying and uncomfortable to drive with the newer, higher headrests.
posted by Orb at 7:39 PM on December 18, 2003

evening: "Now, if we can only get rid of those head "rests" (more like neck killers) on airplane seats for us short people."

Thank you! I hate molded seats with headrests. I spend every flight with my chin on my chest. We need footrests, too. I'm tired of traveling with my feet dangling.

And it's about time someone addressed the ponytail problem.

(5'1" and ponytailed)
posted by swerve at 10:34 PM on December 18, 2003

five fresh fish --- regarding the oil filter being difficult to access --- there are cheap oil filter relocation kits available, that will allow you to locate your oil filter just about anywhere under the hood you want. They're easy to install. Unfortunately, they aren't available for all cars.

However, if you have any machining skills, or have a friend who does, you can accomplish the same thing by taking apart a fresh, new oil filter, using the mounting surfaces of it, and attaching hoses/couplers, etc. You should still get the filter relocator kit of some kind, because they'll then have a new mounting surface for the new filter. Furthermore, the filter kits are designed for very very popular filter models (i.e., for Chevy 350, 305, etc.) so the filters themselves are often a lot cheaper than the oddball filters.
posted by yesster at 6:17 AM on December 19, 2003

I'll keep that in mind for my next car, yesster. At this point, it's not worth the cost. Hell, my car is so shabby now that I've stopped changing the oil filter...
posted by five fresh fish at 10:27 AM on December 19, 2003

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