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Keep your eyes on the road for breakthroughs in dashboard dining

After a year when in-car eating soared across all restaurant segments, automakers are taking mobile settings to new heights. Literally.
Photo courtesy of Cadillac

Consumers are more determined than ever to turn their cars into restaurant dining rooms, as they did in record numbers during 2020. Wait until they see the help they’re about to get from the world’s automakers.

Changes already figuring into the vehicles wheeling out of Detroit and the nation’s new automotive center, Silicon Valley, promise to add topspin to dashboard dining, which took off during the pandemic for all segments of the business, fine dining included. Asked where they’d consumed their most recent white-tablecloth meal, 10% of that segment’s patrons told Technomic researchers they’d eaten the food while traveling in a car, up from 3% in 2019.

With curbside delivery now as standard in the full-service sector as napkins, 5% of casual-dining customers said they’d munched their last order while moving on four wheels. The proportion of midscale-restaurant patrons eating in their Fords and Fiats tripled, from 2% to 6%.

Quick-service restaurants, the kings of mobile dining, were in no danger of losing their bragging rights.  The percentage of customers who ate in their buggies last year topped 22%, according to Technomic, compared with a 17% incidence in 2019.

Big-name players in that sector are scrambling to increase their mobile business by rethinking the drive-thru and studding that sales channel with more technology. Yet a review of automakers’ near and longer-range plans show the receiving ends of those pass-through occasions are also undergoing some jaw-dropping modernizations.

For one thing, there’s the mode of motion. A flying car called The Liberty is already street legal in Europe, with stepped-up production scheduled to start next year.

An American version, from the helicopter manufacturer Bell, was previewed at the 2019 CES, the annual technology exhibition where such now-standard gizmos as DVRs and HDTVs were first showcased.

Clearly, vehicles that can rise vertically and fly through the air—VTOLs, or vertical take-off and landing air taxis-- are no longer the stuff of “Star Wars.” At this year’s scaled-down CES, held as a virtual event in January, General Motors previewed its entry, a battery-powered Cadillac that can zip over cities or suburbs at 56 miles an hour.

The vehicle looks like a giant version of the hobbyist quad drones that have become common sights in parks and along shorelines. The space-age vehicle would allow airborne passengers to munch subs and salads while soaring over a metropolis, with the machine doing most of the flying.

The Consumer Technology Association, the group that presents CES, predicted last year that flying cars would become common sights by 2024.

The more immediate upheavals in dashboard dining may come from changes in the interior cabins of cars that never leave the ground. No longer would consumers have to clutch a coffee or Egg McMuffin in one hand as they try to the steer with the other, grabbing a sip or bite when they can. The brains inside cars are taking over the driving function, freeing drivers to savor their tacos and chicken sandwiches in uninterrupted ease.

At least 10 automakers are offering some degree of auto-piloting in one of their vehicles for the 2021 model year.  The brand plates range from Tesla, Cadillac, Audi and BMW at the high end, to mass-market manufacturers such as Ford, Kia and Nissan.

The self-driving capabilities range from taking over the steering function to keep a car in lane, to braking and pulling forward in stop-and-go traffic, to handling such common situations as entering a major highway.

Still, the true potential game-changer is the self-driving car, such as the Cadillac Autonomous Vehicle that General Motors previewed during this year’s virtual CES. A video depicts an interior cab that looks like an oversized booth of a hot Las Vegas lounge. There’s no driver, nor the rows of parallel bench seats that have been standard in car cabins since Henry Ford’s days. Rather, the new Caddy abounds in plush facing seats and ample table space upon which to rest a drink or a pizza still in its box.

If that sounds like science fiction, consider that self-driving vehicles are already plying the streets of Phoenix, the latest effort by Google’s parent to prove that a driverless car is feasible today. A fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans are serving as a ride-sharing service similar to Uber or Lyft. Unlike prior generations of self-driving vehicles, where a human was positioned as a driver just in case a situation couldn’t be handled by the computer, the new cars function without a person standing by.

The technology is expected to get a boost when Apple reveals its self-driving car, a joint venture with Hyundai. The tech disrupter hasn’t revealed much about the vehicle, though it has sought testing permission. Automobile-industry analysts expect the vehicle to be ready by 2025.

Nearer term, entertainment and connection
Many of those efforts to let a car’s pilot eat without distraction have yet to be perfected for the mass market. Already here are major steps toward turning the vehicles into Barcaloungers on wheels. The dashboard that might have been a resting place for a burger between bites has turned into a veritable entertainment center away from home.

Mercedes-Benz, for instance, is already showcasing a new 56-inch digital dashboard called the MBUX. What should excite restaurateurs is the ease of using what amounts to a wide horizontal video screen for functions such as seeking out a restaurant. The array is designed to be intuitive.

Further down the pricing spectrum is the dashboard interface offered by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, or FAC, a manufacturer recently formed by the combination of two industry stalwarts. Among the features of the UI Connect 5  is the capability to order delivered meals from GrubHub by voice.

Also now accessible from car makers is some sort of small onboard refrigerator, anathema to restaurants hoping to sell more cold drinks to travelers sweating in their SUVs. The Lincoln MKT and its less-expensive sister vehicle, the Ford Flex, both offer refrigerated consoles as an option. The cold box is located between the seats in the cabins’ second row.

A more upscale option is the Champagne chiller available as an option in S-class Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

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