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Toronto, 07/10/11 - Peter Cheney poses for a photo with a travel mug in his car in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, for a story on finding the perfect travel mug. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto, 07/10/11 - Peter Cheney poses for a photo with a travel mug in his car in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, for a story on finding the perfect travel mug. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

Peter Cheney spills the beans: travel mugs frustrate him Add to ...

Considering that humans have walked on the moon and dived to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, a leak-proof coffee cup shouldn’t be that hard to find.

But such is not the case.

As I have learned through personal experience, the mobile cup appears to be a grievous engineering challenge. Behold Exhibit A: the new stainless-steel Starbucks mug that just wrecked one of my new shirts. Which really hurt, because I thought this was the mug that was going to turn things around.

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The design looked sound, and the first two few days went without a hitch – I drove my wife to work without a single spilled drop. Feeling cocky, I flipped the mug upside down. Perfect.

I tweeted to my followers that my wife and I had finally found a coffee-tight mug. And then things went south – as they tend to do when it comes to my family and coffee cups. We got a dribble, then a full on, upholstery-wrecking deluge.

I can’t say that I was surprised. If you have ever watched the depth-charge scene in the classic submarine movie Das Boot, you will understand my mobile coffee-cup experience – leaking gaskets, popped rivets, and liquid where it wasn’t meant to be.

For a guy who prides himself on understanding and taking care of equipment, the leaky coffee cup comes as not just an annoyance, but an engineering challenge and a slap in the face. So I took the Starbucks mug to my workshop, looking for some understanding about what had gone wrong.

The problem quickly emerged – a rubber ring that was supposed to seal the top had been slightly twisted, ruining the seal. The problem could be attributed to human error: The mug had a threaded, screw-on top, and it had obviously been torqued down slightly crooked. So the leak was our fault. Or was it?

I was always a huge fan of Steve Jobs, the legendary Apple CEO and tech guru who died last week. Steve did many things, but his abiding achievement was producing technology that accommodated human beings, instead of the reverse. If only Steve had designed a coffee cup along with the iPod, the iPhone and the Macintosh operating system – if Steve was in charge, a coffee mug would be designed to deal with the real world, which includes sleep-deprived, mechanically inept human beings who may just thread a top on slightly crooked.

Until the early 1980s, you were on your own when it came to drinking coffee in a car. The vehicles of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t have cup holders, and there was no such thing as a mug designed for cars. I used to travel with a stainless steel thermos that looked like a miniaturized Saturn booster.

My introduction to the traveller mug came in 1983, when Tim Hortons offered a brown, vase-shaped plastic mug that slipped into a special clip that kept it from tipping over. I bought two and stuck the clips to the inside of the flipped-down glove compartment lid of my 1967 VW Beetle. When I opened the glove compartment, it turned into a tray for the cups, and I happily cruised the streets of Halifax with my fiancée while we sipped double-doubles, amazed that someone had invented a mug that was actually designed to go on the road.

As we went on, our cars and mugs got fancier. By the 1990s, cup holders were a standard automotive feature, and travel mugs were widely available. But this didn’t mean they were getting better.

My wife and I went through a long series of mugs. Some came from coffee shops. We bought some at department stores. I received one as a thank-you gift for speaking at a university. Some were metal. Some were plastic. And sooner or later, all of them leaked. The only question was how much. Some dribbled. Some poured. A few were veritable explosive devices.

Our worst experience was with a fancy-looking mug we bought at Wal-Mart. It had a reassuringly beefy top that looked like the hatch of a deep sea exploration vessel, but appearances were deceiving – the top fell out one day while I was on my way to an interview, dumping hot coffee all over me (and destroying a new suit, tie and white dress shirt).

About five years ago we got some cups from a coffee shop that had clear outer liners that you could put art inside. But the tops were sieves, and using them to drink coffee in a moving car was a dubious proposition – your chances of staying dry were about equal to those of a U-Boat captain who forgets to close the hatch before a crash dive.

Our best mugs were a pair from Starbucks with snap-on lids. But after six months or so, they too started to dribble, forcing us to wrap them in paper towels when we drank. Which brings us to our newest mug, which looks great, but can’t be trusted.

Looking back, I realize that I am part of the problem. Although I am an obsessive gear head and product researcher, I have to admit that my coffee cup acquisition has been hit or miss – I simply bought the best-looking cup that appeared before me when I needed one.

For a guy who spend months researching purchases like cars, torque wrenches and scuba diving regulators, it seems odd that I’ve dropped the ball on traveller cups, but there are only so many hours in the day.

I have the perfect torque wrench. I have the perfect scuba regulator. And I have the perfect hang glider. Choosing each of them took years of experience and endless research. But I got them, and they all work perfectly. Now it’s time for yet another mission that will plunge me into the worlds of hydraulics, mechanics and materials engineering – I need to find the perfect traveller mug.

How hard can it be? I’ll let you know.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

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