Car faces

Every once in a while my seven-year-old daughter will watch a car go by as we’re driving and comment, “That car looks angry,” or “That car looks sad.”

It’s something we’ve all thought at some point or other (or at least I have) regardless of age: the fronts of cars look just enough like faces that our brains insist on reading expressions onto them, even though they’re just inanimate hunks of metal. (Which of course is why the animated movie Cars worked so well.)

Now researchers in Vienna have studied this phenomenon scientifically, aiming to find out if our tendency to attribute personality traits to cars spills over into the ways we interact with cars as both drivers and pedestrians.

It’s not surprising we see faces in cars. Humans see faces everywhere (witness the Man in the Moon and the various supposed apparitions of Jesus or Mary in everything from pieces of burnt toast to mildew on walls). The reason is simple: there are few things we look at that are more important to our well-being than other people’s faces. We need to be able to judge whether, for example, someone is telling us the truth or not (particularly helpful in election years) or whether they’re about to do something unpleasant to us (ditto).

So how does this hard-wired behavior apply to cars? Truls Thorstensen of EFS Consulting Vienna, Karl Grammer of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Urban Ethology and other researchers at the University of Vienna decided to find out.

The researchers asked people to report on the characteristics, emotions, personality traits and attitudes they attributed to car fronts, then tried to match that information to specific car shapes.

They confirmed that the perception of faces on cars is widespread. All of their subjects saw the headlights as eyes, the air intake or grill as a mouth, and the nose as, well, a nose, in more than half of the cars, and one third of the subjects saw a human or animal face in at least 90 percent of the cars.

Unlike my daughter, who likes “happy cars,” both men and women liked cars best that were “mature, dominant, masculine, arrogant, angry-looking”–characteristics corresponding to what the researchers called “power.” In design terms, that meant cars that had a wide stance, a narrow windshield, and/or widely spaced, narrow headlights.

The questions the study raises are intriguing. Do people think that an angry-looking car will help them battle traffic, perhaps by intimidating other drivers? The researchers hope to find out in future studies.

Perhaps they’ll also answer some of the questions the study raises for me. For instance, do some people deliberately avoid buying angry-looking cars because they don’t want to be seen as aggressive on the road? Do happy people buy happy-looking cars and angry people angry-looking cars, or are the former bought by depressed people trying to cheer themselves up and the latter by wimps trying to compensate for their wimpishness?

Why, the research possibilities are endless. Are people in bored-looking cars more likely to fall asleep at the wheel? If a happy person drives a sad-looking car long enough, does the happy person become sad?

Does driving an angry-looking car make you more inclined to road rage? Are angry-looking cars or happy-looking cars more likely to be involved in accidents?

And how do pedestrians react to car faces? Are you more likely to assume an oncoming car will stop at the crosswalk if it has a happy face? Do angry-faced cars or happy-faced cars come to a complete stop at stop signs more often? (Of course, they’ll have to test that one in Vienna. Around here, almost no cars come to a complete stop.)

The researchers talk about coming up with a tool that could help designers imbue cars with a desired expression, but I’ve got an even better idea: make a car with moveable features that constantly mimic the actual facial expression of the driver. All you need is a video camera in the cabin and some clever software.

Just think: no more guessing if that oncoming car is driven by someone in a pedestrian-killing mood.

You’d sell thousands in Regina alone.

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