Researchers study 'personality traits' of cars


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Passive fenders, aggressive grilles: Researchers study how design shapes cars' 'personalities'

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. July 6, 2009; Bill Kaczor writing for the AP reported that the butterfly decals on the front bumper, flowers in the dashboard vase and lime-green paint job only confirmed Dennis Slice's perception of a Volkswagen Beetle parked in a lot at Florida State University.

Slice, a shape analysis researcher, said the narrow body, wide-eyed circular headlights, tall windshield and curve of the bug's hood match the facial features of a smiling woman or child.

"This is the classic cute car -- not dominant, not aggressive," said Slice, an associate professor of scientific computing at FSU. "I don't think anyone could be mean to someone else in a Volkswagen Beetle."

Slice and fellow researchers at Austria's Vienna University, where he's a guest professor, are exploring the widely held belief that cars project personalities because they look like human faces when viewed head-on.

Cartoonists, for instance, long have drawn anthropomorphic cars with toothy grilles that grinned or frowned and headlights that winked or blinked. The creators of the recent animated film "Cars," though, used windshields for eyes. They were afraid headlight peepers would have given racer Lightning McQueen and other denizens of Radiator Springs a snakelike appearance.

Three cars parked near the Beetle offer examples of the opposite end of the personality spectrum. A Mitsubishi Eclipse, Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger each practically ooze testosterone.

Their low, wide stances, long hoods, gaping grilles and relatively narrow headlights give each of these sporty models a look that's consistent with the facial features of an adult male, Slice said. Each projects a mature, dominant, aggressive and powerful personality.

"This is a car that's ready to take care of business," he said standing in front of the Eclipse. "You don't want to mess with this car."

Slice and his Vienna colleagues hope their work one day may help designers determine what parts of a car, such as the headlights, grille or windshield, they can change -- and how -- to project traits that make cars more appealing to different kinds of customers.

They're taking the emerging field of shape analysis, or morphometrics, in a new direction. Most other applications have been biological or medical. For example, researchers are trying to determine if bone shapes can be used to help identify the age, gender and race of unknown human remains and how variations in facial features affect the fit and function of respirators.

The idea of seeing faces in inanimate objects is part of a survival instinct that goes back to prehistoric times, Slice said.

Facial features offering clues about a person's sex, age, emotions and intentions helped early humans "know whether the guy that just stepped out of the bushes is going to take your head back for a trophy or invite you to lunch," Slice said.

Those identifications are so important that people also tend to see faces even where they don't exist.

"If you get it wrong and you see a face in a cloud or a stone or a mountain or some burnt toast then you might be frightened a little bit, but it's no real cost to you," Slice said. "But if you should ever miss a face and that person wants your head, then that's a serious omission."

Slice said future research may look at whether cars' personalities relate to drivers' habits and interactions.

"Possibilities are if you see an aggressive car in your rear view mirror you may be more like to pull over and yield to it," he said. "By the same token, if you see a submissive or more immature car trying to get into traffic you may be more likely to yield to it and help the innocent little car get into traffic."

Another question is whether drivers have the same personalities as their cars.

Slice got a bit of anecdotal evidence in the parking lot from Gwen Oliver, a custodial supervisor at Florida State, after telling her that her black Eclipse is dominant, aggressive, powerful and "ready to take care of business."

"I am. Everything you said, I'm like that," Oliver told him after she briskly walked over to see why he was interested in her car. "I'm aggressive, I'm straightforward and I'm outgoing and I believe in getting the job done."

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