Researchers Study the Impact of Personality on Automotive Design

A recent study conducted by Florida State University indicates that people attribute human and animal facial features to vehicles and, in doing so, assign them personalities.

Along with fellow researchers at the Vienna University in Austria, Florida State University associate professor of scientific computing, Denis Slice, is applying the emerging field of shape analysis, or morphometrics, to the automotive design and manufacturing.

Slice uses a Volkswagen Beetle parked in an FSU campus parking lot to illustrate the phenomenon. He points to the flowers in the dashboard vase and butterfly decals affixed to the vehicle’s front bumper as a prime example of how people tend to project personalities onto their vehicles.  Slice contends that the tall windshield, narrow body style, round headlights and curved hood mimic the facial features of a smiling child or woman.

‘This is a classic cute car,’ he says, ‘not dominant, not aggressive,’ and adds, ‘I don’t think anyone could be mean to someone else in a Volkswagen Beetle."

According to Slice, visualizing the shapes of human faces in inanimate objects is not a recent phenomenon but a survival skill dating back to our earliest ancestors. Since the dawn of the gas powered automobile, cartoonists have been creating whimsical images of anthropomorphic vehicles expressive headlights for eyes, smiling bumpers and grills and scowling windshield wipers. According to the creators of the recent Disney-Pixar animated film Cars, illustrators placed the eyes of four-wheeled characters on the windshields to more closely mirror the approximation of human eyes. Using headlights for eyes, they feared, gave their characters a more snakelike appearance.

Slice and his fellow researchers hope that their research may help automotive designers and marketing professionals identify particular design elements to make their cars more appealing to different types of consumers.

Future research may also include studies of whether or not automobiles’ perceived personalities correlate to the way drivers behave behind the wheel and interact with other vehicles on the road.

Commenting on other vehicles parked alongside the Volkswagen Beetle in the FSU parking lot, Slice pointed to sporty Mitsubishi Eclipse. The low, wide profile, elongated hood and narrow headlights, he says, exuded an aggressive, definitively male personality. "This is a car that’s ready to take care of business," he says. "You don’t want to mess with this car."

When completed, Slice and his colleagues hope that the information and insights gained through their research will be used to write design software for use in the automotive industry.

Despite the emphasis placed on price and features, automakers understand that car buyers tend to base their buying decisions primarily on emotion. Simply put ‘ people buy cars based on vehicles ‘personalities’, be they passive or aggressive, male or female.  In today’s rapidly changing, highly competitive auto industry, including morphometrics as a component of the design process could mean the difference between success and failure for a particular model.

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