Cup Holders

Tort reform advocates often site a lawsuit by Stella Liebeck against McDonalds as an example of a frivolous lawsuit. She suffered third-degree burns when a cup of coffee spilled on her while she was driving. Her car had no cup holders. Stella’s lawsuit was the subject of jokes and calls for legal reforms, but the fact that her vehicle had no cup holder is an interesting story of how difficult it is to bring about innovation.

When vehicles were first developed, manufacturers gave little thought to amenities. Entrepreneurs began to offer after-market features which you could add to your car. In the 1920s, the Sears catalog had more pages devoted to vehicle add-ons than it had for men’s clothing.

Vehicle manufacturers hadn’t envisioned an eat-on-the-run society which the car would enable. When drive-thru facilities became popular in the 1950s, innovations started popping up for facilitating eating and drinking while driving. One such device was a snack tray that hung from the dashboard. The glove compartment was looked at as a place for drinks, but the solution was simply a small circular indentation on the glove compartment door which was unlikely to hold a cup when the car was moving.

The first patent for a cup holder was filed in 1950. Vehicle manufacturers continued to see no need to accommodate drinks in the basic features of the car. Cadillac introduced a magnetized glove compartment door which would hold metal cups.

It wasn’t until 1983, when car companies began to incorporate cup holders into the design of a car. The Chrysler minivans had cup holders in the dashboard. It took a decade for cup holders to become a standard feature in cars.

Why did it take six or seven decades for such an obvious need to be addressed? Was it a failure of market intelligence? Was is arrogance (i.e., we know best)? Or was it a false economic analysis of cost and benefits? Whatever the case, the cup holder is an example of a public demanding innovation.

In our current disruption-driven economy, companies can ill-afford to ignore public needs. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to spur innovation.

* * *

“If you have always done it that way, it is probably wrong.” – Charles Kettering (Innovator)


How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.