Driven to Eat

Back when families felt secure enough in their jobs to take two-week vacations, my wife and I would drive to the Sierras with our son every summer. We would leave early in the morning when it was cool, and head east out of Sacramento climbing hot, winding and steep grades. We would reach our favorite high altitude camp at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park by late afternoon. What has always puzzled me is why I would ask for a snack (an apple or trail mix) as soon as the car door was shut and we had barely left our driveway. Why was I suddenly so hungry?

I’ve never figured out the reason for that habit. I know that most people eat inside their cars, though there is a special class of folks who insist on maintaining a pristine car interior and disallow eating. I never had such a rule, even in my nicest cars.

I wish it were the case that the acts of dispensing and consuming food inside a car was better supported and acknowledged by the auto interior design community.  On more than one occasion I have tried to design devices that address the need for eating while in a moving automobile. In Public Therapy Buses, Information Specialty Bums, Solar Cook-a-mats and Other Visions of the 21st Century (1991) I presented a system for passing food between front and back seats, called the Automobile Snack Conveyor. I noted:
Households have so little time for bonding and closeness that even a moment passing food with an automobile snack conveyor seems special. The conveyor has forward and reverse directions and can also be used for passing notes or maps.

It is my habit to work away at an idea for a long time, sometimes for decades. In 2006 I updated the food exchange belt, making it look less like an aftermarket accessory. I integrated the belt into a center console that included a snack drop bin, trash holder and forward-reverse toggle switch. Backseat passengers, especially children, would be assigned the duty to ask for candy bar wrappings or orange peels, which they would place inside the trash bin.

Sometimes when I attempt to solve a design problem I discover that the solution has created new problems. In the nifty two-seater convertible below, a picnic table is automatically lowered in place, but both driver and passenger must stand outside the car while it is dropped into place, and later when it is returned to its place. This is a flawed design!

Another idea that I came up with is the Inflatable Dining Tray that inflates to a convenient table height when placed on the lap. The Tray could be used by passengers but not by the driver.

Earlier, in What the World Needs Now (1984) I offered The Commuter’s Breakfast Kit. It addressed the driver’s need to eat while on the road. Like most of my “inventions” this one was designed to elicit a laugh more than to garner acclaim for its ingenuity. Yet the joke will be missed by most readers who were born during or after the 1980s. They cannot imagine riding in a car that lacks shoulder harnesses. In this pre-air-bag, pre-shoulder harness car, the driver will lunge forward during a sudden stop, causing the Breakfast Kit to fold up.

I’m told that microwaves are now available as an accessory in certain expensive car models. So my 2004 concept is already out-of-date. But I doubt that those cars offer a (literal) glove box like mine that dispenses Drivers’ Dining Gloves!

As a cartoonist who likes to think of himself as an inventor, I sometimes enjoy depicting an idea for the idea’s sake even while I haven’t any idea how the device works. For fun, we can assume that my Traffic Meal is a sensitive semi-robotic device, delicate, responsive and “aware” of the driver’s mouth position because of a sophisticated mouth-distance sensor. It responds to voice commands like “Feed me!” or “No more.” Where it stores the food and how it scoops up the food into the Dispenso-Bite are questions that I cannot answer.

Car owners who get upset when cookie crumbs are scattered on their upholstery will never go for my Muffler Oven. Knowing they might need to wipe cooking grease off the steering wheel, dashboard or headliner, they would never buy a car that had this accessory.

In this design, the center console connects the front and back passenger areas. It includes a small refrigerator with sliding clear plastic doors. The model on the right includes an easily viewed LCD screen that reports on conditions inside the temperature-controlled Muffler Oven. An oven thermometer and timer serve to control an exhaust fan that sucks food fumes away from the grill. It also raises and lowers the grill above the heat exchange unit that surrounds the hot muffler.

In the rear section of the console unit, provision is made for cleanup. Trash bags are stored in a drawer and a mini-vacuum is available for use in getting rid of crumbs. A spray-style grease remover, stored in its own cabinet, is useful for getting rid of smears from buttered bagels or French fry wrapper grease. The spray bottle is also useful for cleaning an Auto Snack Belt.

Designing a Muffler Oven, and designing a sensible means for venting it, are not simple tasks. Here, the muffler oven is located in the rear passenger area. A venting system allows cooking smoke and smells to escape from the oven through openings in the car roof.

At times a cartoonist simply loses the thread and reaches for ideas that make no sense at all, but that make him or her chuckle anyway. Maybe the idea of cooking inside the car, or cooking under the engine hood, is so silly that it deserves to be lampooned. The above illustration of the CarBQ is one of five drawings I created for “Good Old-Fashioned American Know-How,” published in the September 1975 issue of Harper’s magazine. Captions were written by San Francisco Chronicle newspaper columnist Arthur Hoppe. The article’s thesis was that Americans were preparing to celebrate the nation’s 200th anniversary in 1976 and needed to consider ways of demonstrating their patriotism. Because Americans needed to drive their oversized American-made cars less in order to conserve the nation’s precious fossil fuels, the most patriotic act would be to not drive their cars at all, but rather to convert them to useful purposes around the home!

Eating or cooking inside a stationary or moving vehicle is a complicated matter that raises difficult design issues, especially of driver distraction and car cleanliness. Yet most folks eat while inside their car, some steering with one hand while holding a hot coffee cup or sandwich in the other. There must be a better way! I feel that to address these complex issues properly, I must go back to the drawing board.

Visit Steven M. Johnson at his website.

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It is instructive to take advice from a Guru. Thank you Guru Maguaffi! Certainly I agree that some sort of sipping apparatus for use while driving would be handy, especially on long trips. The container and the straws or tubes would need to be removable and either washable or replaceable. I notice that serious bike riders have worked out a system for sipping while peddling. We need to work on this.
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How about drinks? The one thing we always had problems with on long road-trips was operating the coffee flask.

Would be handy to have a straw that pulls out of the dashboard or steering wheel.

Or 2 straws, one with coffee, tee or hot chocolate, kept hot by the radiator, and one for soft drinks kept cold by the aircon.
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Humor is part of humanity, and by that very nature, also part of civilization. Even folk of ancient times understood humor.

Those who fail to take a joke for what it is, perhaps have that part of humanity and civilization missing in themselves.

My sincere sympathies to those.
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ted: Indeed, they are. Oscardagrouch is worried that my work reflects poorly on "where civilization is heading." And, gosh, sometimes I worry that civilization is heading toward humorlessness.
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