The car buying experience is really a ritual – the glass-walled showroom, the pushy salesmen, the shiny just-waxed cars that feel like yours at the very first touch – and then there's that new-car smell. Its a little bit like fresh paint, or old leather, but whatever it is makes it feel like the car just rolled off the assembly line. It turns out that new-car smell is a toxic soup of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) released by plastic parts inside the car. Last year, NASA researchers developed a remarkable coating that permanently seals in these gases for use in confined environments where out-gassing plastic poses a deadly threat. Despite this, car companies are working to find their own solution. So what still seems to be the problem?
It turns out that we love new-car smell. As cars get visually and technologically more advanced, smell is often used to invoke a bit of nostalgia. New leather is artificially scented to smell of old craftsmen's techniques that are no longer used, and the smell of out-gassing vinyl brings back memories of an era when we didn't know what out-gassing was, or why it was so bad for us. According to Janis Ambrose Shard, Toyota's color and trim manager, decades of experiences have cultivated a near-Pavlovian reaction to new car smell.
When the consumer likes the car, he/she transfers those positive feelings to the smell. This reaction seems to cut both ways, as nearly every major car company admits to having experts on staff that meticulously control the mixture of smells inside their cars as if they were vintage bottles of wine. Their stated goal is to reduce toxicity, but they know very well that the smell of a new car is inextricably linked to its overall evaluation by consumers. This very notion has delayed or prevented the use of nontoxic materials that would dramatically change the smell of the car, and is probably the reason why NASA's revolutionary invention may never see its way into new cars – the car wouldn't smell "new" anymore.
Photo via Jonathon Markowski