How Human Evolution Explains the Rise of the SUV

Or, how pareidolia killed the passenger car.

Ford

Do you suffer from pareidolia? Don’t bother to look it up—I’ll perform the diagnosis right now, over the Internet. Yep, you definitely test positive for pareidolia. So what is it? Why, it’s the very human tendency to see faces where no actual face exists. In clouds, in the moon, in shadows—and, of course, on the front of automobiles.

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The state trooper's Dodge Charger filling your mirror? That’s an angry face. The NC-generation Miata parked in your neighbor’s driveway? It’s so happy to see you, it can barely contain itself. The quad-round-lamp full-sized GM cars of the '70s looked vaguely confused—and in 1976 when they got quad-rectangular headlamps thanks to new DOT regulations, most of them exchanged confusion for peevishness or aloof superiority.

Why do human beings experience pareidolia? Is it universal? And does it just maybe, possibly, explain one of the hardest-to-understand shifts in the automotive market over the past few decades? Let’s find out.

Start with this: You have pareidolia because at one point or another it probably saved the lives of one or more of your distant ancestors. In the thousands of years before agricultural civilization, when human beings lived in uneasy coexistence with alpha predators like tigers, bears and wolves, the ability to distinguish an animal face in a forest might have been the difference between life and death. The early human who saw the face and ran would live; the one whose imagination didn’t immediately construct a face from a few shadowy clues ended up as some creature’s dinner.

Once humans started living in close with strangers, the ability to rapidly discern emotions and intent from a face became especially useful. Is the person walking towards you a friend, a beggar, or a robber? What about the beauty over there in the corner of your tribe’s tent—interested in you, or just daydreaming about something? In each case, the people who could better “read” faces tended to survive and reproduce more often than the ones who did not.

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Yep, you definitely test positive for pareidolia.

The offers a fascinating array of stones and natural features that have become famous over time for having “faces.” Needless to say, if we can distinguish a face in a weather-worn rock formation, we can obviously distinguish it in a manufactured product. It doesn’t matter if you grew up around those objects or not. When scientists visited an isolated tribe in Ethiopia and showed its members pictures of modern automobiles, the tribespeople , even though they had no previous experience with anything like a motor vehicle.

It’s been shown that people prefer “faces” in their cars, which may help to explain why virtually every successful automotive design since the 1920s features two “eyes” and a central “mouth.” We tend to distrust cars that have no real face, and that's particularly true of people who are not automotive enthusiasts. You and I might find a hidden-headlamp Corvette or Miata quite striking, but the average citizen is reassured by a visible face.

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Infiniti

Attempts to do away with faces on cars, or to modify them past the limits of immediate pareidolia recognition, usually meet with failure. Infiniti debuted the 1990 Q45 (shown above) without a grille, then hastily rectified the error. The 1996 Ford Taurus, discussed recently in these pages, underwent two separate procedures in four years to make its “face” look more human and less unpleasantly piscine. Not everybody is thrilled with the recent redesign of the Tesla Model S; its (fake) grille is almost nonexistent and we associate the grille of a car with the mouth.

Nissan’s Juke and the most recent Jeep Cherokee both suffer from a bit of facial-recognition uncertainty: Exactly where are the eyes? It’s rare to hear any car with vertical-stack headlights praised as beautiful, whether it’s the 1977 Monte Carlo or the 2017 Escalade. The Bentley Mulsanne has bothered me from the moment I first saw it at an auto show. Is it confused? Surprised? Cross-eyed?

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Bentley

The human preference for faces on automobiles goes a long way towards explaining the rise of SUVs and crossovers in the '90s. Many passenger cars of the time were styled in imitation of the semi-faceless 1984 Audi 5000. They had low noses, headlights that bordered on the non-existent, and vacuous bottom-feeding intake “mouths” molded into the front bumper. Done right, it was the 1989 Accord; done wrong, it was the first-generation Chevy Lumina. In no case did the “faces” look particularly strong, confident, or interesting.

The trucks and early crossovers didn’t need to worry about aerodynamic considerations, so they all featured big, expressive faces. The Explorer, the 4-Runner, the XJ Cherokee: These were vehicles with simple, easy-to-read countenances, just like the '70s family car best-sellers before them. Given the choice, droves of buyers abandoned faceless vehicles for ones that offered some consolation for the pareidolic impulse.

Laugh if you want at my theory, but it explains a lot. Why did customers feel such strong attachment to vehicles that were often nothing more than compact pickup trucks from the previous decade with a cap welded on? Why were people willing to pay more for a vinyl-interior Ford Explorer than they were for a loaded Crown Victoria? Why did Honda rebadge the Isuzu Rodeo as the Passport, and in doing so put two decades of hard-earned reliability reputation at immediate risk?

You can say it was the “command driving position,” you can say it was cargo space, you can say it was just keeping up with the Joneses. I say that it was pareidolia, plain and simple. American customers might have liked but they didn’t want a car that matched the description.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m seeing a pattern that doesn’t exist, or an explanation that simply isn’t real. Maybe I’m just seeing the equivalent of a shadowy set of features in the jungle primeval, warning me and everybody else: If a car is going to be successful, then it, , must prepare a face to meet the faces it will meet.

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