How car companies are leaning into the mindfulness movement

Calm space.
Calm space.
Image: Lincoln
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Sit down, buckle your seatbelt, take the key out of the ignition, close your eyes—and breathe.

Now, imagine your car as a sanctuary. Can you shed the noise and stresses associated with driving? Can you imagine feeling better, more rejuvenated, calmer, even at peace with the world—while sitting in your vehicle?

What may sound like a far-fetched fantasy instead encapsulates the pursuit of many car companies today. Beyond comfort and safety, manufacturers are racing to find ways to improve the overall physical and mental health of drivers and passengers.

It’s a category the industry has coined “health, wellness, and well-being,” or HWW, and it’s become an exciting space for innovation. Kia and Hyundai have AI-powered concept cars that respond to driver’s emotional state; Audi teamed with Italian fitness manufacturer Technogym to design a “wellness mode” which transforms its car cabin into a mobile fitness studio; Mercedes Benz has a futurologist who creates feel good scents; and the programs running BMW’s latest models feature a self-care concierge. Lincoln is even positioning its vehicles as a place to do a seated meditation, with the help of a free app subscription.

The link between car design and health has become even more relevant in light of the mass awareness about airborne viruses. Last March, just when the menace of the novel coronavirus became clear, Jaguar Land Rover previewed research using UV light technology in car interiors to arrest the spread of colds and flu.

Sarwant Singh, managing partner at the market research firm Frost & Sullivan, says that Covid-19 is fueling a clamor for health-enhancing car environments. In Forbes, he explains how Tesla’s souped-up air filtration system, which was met with some mockery when it was introduced in 2015, has suddenly become practical during the pandemic. “Tesla’s Model X vehicles that were famously advertised as being so powerful that in ‘Bioweapon Defense Mode’ they could help vehicle occupants survive a military grade bio attack through the simple expedient of sitting in their Tesla X,” Singh writes.

“Hyperbole or not, it’s something that resonates in these times of Covid-19, particularly since the filters are touted to be 100 times more powerful than top-end automotive filters and remove at least 99.97% of fine particulate matter and gaseous pollutants, as well as bacteria, viruses, pollen, and mold spores’.”

Tesla owners in California also testified to how useful the feature was during the spate of raging wildfires last year. Singh predicts that health and wellness will become standard themes across the industry by 2025.

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Driving home the message

No car company has been more zealous about driving home the health and wellness message than Lincoln Motor Company. Historically known for touting horsepower and heft, the Ford-owned brand has taken a decidedly softer tone in recent years. Commercials for its entry level SUV, for instance, highlight Herman Miller-designed ergonomic seats, an immersive entertainment system, and interiors designed to eliminate visual clutter.

The car’s mechanical bings, clicks, and ticks have been replaced by pleasant chimes composed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Lincoln’s celebrity spokesperson strategy shifted from the macho energy of Dennis Hopper to the chilled out vibes of Matthew McConaughey.

Kemal Curic, Lincoln’s design director, says that these features are expressions of “quiet flight,” a principle the company adopted in 2014 as a counterpoint to the aggressive, performance-driven themes that have defined the automotive industry for decades. “We’re challenging the entire company to think in terms of four guiding pillars—beauty, ‘gliding,’ human, and crafted sanctuary,” he explains. The aspiration, Curic says, is to create an ultra relaxing, spa-like environment.

Lincoln’s position within the wellness space goes beyond the bounds of its vehicles. Apart from built-in features, Lincoln sponsors yoga classes, book events, and even convened a coronavirus-themed mindfulness workshop moderated by Goop’s chief content officer. And starting last August, every Lincoln customer can avail themselves of a year’s free subscription to the meditation and sleep app Calm.

For Lincoln, the partnership with Calm is more than a nice-to-have customer perk. It’s central to its efforts to position itself as the wellness-oriented luxury car brand. The companies even share a celebrity endorser in McConaughey.”We saw that a lot of our clients and our target customers are making mindfulness part of their routines,” explains Eric Peterson, marketing communications manager at Lincoln. “Offering Calm is less of an incentive than [an alignment] with their lifestyle.”

Practicing mindfulness behind the wheel is particularly appealing for busy professionals. Multitaskers have attested to the advantages of taking a few minutes to center themselves before starting the engine, while on the road, or for electric vehicle owners, while their car is charging. “The daily commute is a great opportunity to train the mind. And mindfulness, in essence, is just mind training,” explains Maria Gonzalez, author of Mindful Leadership, in the Harvard Business Review.

“You can develop focus and create calm and relaxation, arriving at the office refreshed and ready for the day, and at the end of the day, arriving at home ready to enjoy the evening. Since we commute twice a day, it’s a powerful opportunity to form new habits.” Gonzales contends that mindfulness can be done safely while driving because it trains us to be more present. Calm and competitor Headspace have mindfulness modules, breathing exercises and even a podcast for commuters.

Even for those who aren’t meditating, there’s research indicating that car owners are using their parked vehicles to collect themselves. The 2018 IKEA Life At Home report found that 45% of American respondents to its survey said they sit in their cars to get a break from the domestic chaos in their homes. Psychologists say that the car is a conducive environment for a good, cathartic ugly-cry, as the Washington Post explains.

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Redesigning car design

The burgeoning wellness-on-the-move movement is also changing the people who design cars. Designer Kimberly Marte teaches at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, and has worked at Tesla, Nissan, and Acura. Her impression is that the industry is thinking more broadly about the driving experience. “As as a whole, we’re more thoughtful,” she says. “There’s a big discussion about how to make a cleaner space for your five senses and create that spa-like experience.” Design studios are scrutinizing the toxicity of standard materials like paints, glues, plastic parts, and leathers, and some companies are even looking to hire Hollywood-caliber sound engineers to fine-tune all the sounds a vehicle emits.

Instead of cockpits, car cabins are being reconceived of as home interiors, and it could mean a shift in the male-dominated automotive design industry. Starting with General Motors’ “Damsels of Design,” in the late 1950s, auto makers began recruiting female designers after realizing that women had a great influence in car-buying decisions. With some notable exceptions, female designers have been traditionally relegated to working on interiors and finishes, which was considered less prestigious than defining the car’s exterior. The emphasis on enhancing car interiors could mean a reversal or at least a leveling of this hierarchy.

Marte, who teaches a course in color and materials, has also observed a change in attitude in her students. “This genderless mentality is so much a part of the character of the younger generation. They don’t necessarily fight for male or female but for what’s right for the design,” she explains. “I have several guys in my graduating class who want to focus on CMF [Color Material Finish]. That never would have happened 10 years ago.”

Marte explains that an emphasis on car interiors is also a preview for the future of self-driving vehicles. It’s something we’re already seeing a bit of today, as about 7% of cars in the US already have some technology that can take over tasks like steering or monitoring speed limits, according to a 2019 survey. “When your car can monitor the stop-and-go traffic, you can take the time to reflect on your day and use your car as serenity space,” she explains. “And when we don’t have to control our vehicles, we’ll have a kind of second living room.”