Tailing the X-Commuter

The drive to get out of big cities is turning the United States into a land of nomads. "Extreme commuters" who travel more than 90 minutes to work, one way, are the fastest-growing group of commuters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They are also an increasingly important economic force shaping everything from real-estate markets to fast-food menus.

More Americans than ever are willing to trade time in their car for the dream of a big house and a big yard. Nearly 10 million people now drive more than an hour to work, up 50 percent from 1990. Many are doing what California real-estate agents call "driving 'til you qualify" for a mortgage. In places like southern California, each exit along the interstate saves you tens of thousands of dollars.

Companies are rushing to soak up some of that savings. Americans today eat an average of 32 meals a year in their cars, according to researcher Harry Balzer at the NPD Group. And they order one in four restaurant meals from the car. So McDonald's is rolling out products that fit in cup holders, like its new Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait.

Convenience stores are going down the same road. The Sheetz convenience-store chain bolted touchscreen menus onto its gas pumps in the United States. The idea is that by the time you're done filling up, your sandwich will be ready at the drive-through. "The fastest-growing appliance in America is not the microwave," says NPD's Balzer. "It's the power window." Coming next: private potties at the pump.

Carmakers have the most to gain, and brands from Peugeot to Honda are rolling out hybrids partly with an eye to cutting gas costs for the extreme commuter. But the real action is inside the cockpit. Cup holders, first introduced in 1982, now outnumber seats in many cars. The new Nissan Altima has three cup holders just for the driver: one for bottled water, one for coffee and one for juice. There are even slots for bottle caps. The new Dodge Caliber offers an optional refrigerated glove box, and its front passenger seat transforms into a dining table when you fold it flat.

The next front: seats that can go the distance. "These longer commutes will change how we evaluate seats," says Toyota marketing VP Jim Farley. "We may see people willing to pay big money for really comfortable seats." General Motors now has a "lead seat-comfort engineer," Mark Grajek, a.k.a. Golden Buns. GM began testing seats only in 1990, but now gives each seat 7,000 hours of, ahem, bottom-line analysis.

And what's happening in the United States is a harbinger for the world. The long commute is now cementing itself in Europe and spreading from Japan to the rest of Asia as well. Indeed, University of California Urban Planning professor Michael Woo says that Chinese commuters travel as far and spend as much time in cars as Californians--more than an hour a day. And American commerce is right on their tail: McDonald's opened its first drive-through window in China last December, and plans to open hundreds more.