According to some recent studies, the average car driver in India could be spending as much as 600 hours or more every year in his car, of which up to 5 % of the time may be spent sitting in traffic jams. So, yes, while factors like a car’s exterior styling, power, performance, ride and handling, and fuel economy are definitely important, the interiors are no less so. Indeed, according to independent polls conducted by various automotive OEMs, interior design, features, comfort, infotainment, connectivity and low levels of NVH feature high on prospective buyers’ list of priorities when looking for a new car.
Currently, when it comes to car interiors, the elements that seem to really matter for most car buyers are the seat upholstery (leather/leather-like materials being considered ‘premium,’ while cloth upholstery is considered more suitable for hot, humid climatic conditions), seat ergonomics for long-distance driving, feature-rich and easy to use infotainment and navigation systems, powerful HVAC, safety features like airbags, and insulation from outside noise. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and buyers in different car segments may have different preferences. For example, configurable seating (where the seats can be folded away in multiple ways to release more space for luggage, when required) may be more important for someone buying a 7-seater MPV, while someone buying a high-end sedan might be more concerned with the car’s infotainment system. Here, we take a look at some key factors that are driving change and evolution in terms of how new car interiors are being designed and the factors that are likely to drive change in the foreseeable future.
CONNECTIVITY & UX
Keeping aside the debate on whether or not it’s a good thing (from the safety perspective), car buyers these days want pervasive connectivity – they want to keep using their smartphones and/or other Web-connected gadgets even while on the move. And this need for always-on data connectivity is one of the key factors that will influence cars’ interior design.
Look at the interiors of a high-end sedan from the 1980s – you’re likely to see dozens of buttons and switches and rotary knobs etc. These have already, largely, been replaced with colour displays – touchscreens, which display all key information pertaining to the cars infotainment-related functions, which can now be controlled either via the touchscreen itself, or via a smart controller of some sort, usually a rotary knob that moves in multiple directions, in two planes. So this – the replacement of many individual buttons with just one smart controller – is one trend that will definitely continue and will increasingly percolate down from higher-end vehicles to even entry-level cars.
Also, with increasing smartphone connectivity and the inclusion of things like Android Auto or Apple CarPlay in cars’ infotainment systems, smart digital assistants (Siri, in the case of Apple, and Google Assistant in the case of Android) will also help users control their cars – not by twiddling a knob, but by just speaking out and saying what they want. With advances in voice recognition technology and companies working at a furious pace to integrate voice recognition into automotive infotainment systems, the number and range of functions that can be controlled with the user’s voice will increase in the coming years. This will help interior designers further streamline the dashboard user interface, reducing the number of manually operated controls.
On the subject of dashboard displays, these might be at least partially replaced with Head-Up Displays (HUD), which project vital information directly into the driver’s field of view, without needing him to look down at the instrument cluster to access information. Already available on many productions cars from various OEMs, these HUD systems project information in a way that it appears to ‘float’ ahead of the windscreen at a comfortable distance from the driver’s eyes, in a way that remains non-intrusive, so that the driver can also continue to focus on the road/traffic ahead.
Complementing HUDs, yet another method of controlling automotive smart displays in the near future may include gesture control. As demonstrated by BMW’s ‘HoloActive Touch’ system at the CES this year, drivers in the future might not even need to actually touch a screen to operate various functions. Instead, free floating virtual displays will be gesture sensitive, allowing the driver (and/or other occupants) to just move their hands and fingers in some pre-specified ways to control things like music selection, volume levels, HVAC operation and so on. Such systems, already available on certain production cars from BMW, will become more powerful and intuitive in the near future.
ELECTRIC POWERTRAINS, NEW MATERIALS
With the governments in various countries now pushing hard on electric mobility and even announcing deadlines for ending the use of IC engines, OEMs are now ramping up EV development. This will, of course, bring its own set of challenges as well as opportunities. While batteries are still large, heavy and cumbersome, they are expected to become much more compact and energy dense in the coming years, while electric motors are already much more compact than a big internal combustion engine. So, with the move to EVs, one advantage that interior designers may have in the future is packaging – more interior space to play with. With compact electric motors replacing the IC engine, more interior space may be liberated even on cars with a relatively smaller wheelbase. This extra space may be used to either carry more passengers or engineer more robust safety systems that insulate occupants from potentially dangerous situations.
In addition to e-powertrains, another factor that will affect automotive interior design is the availability and use of newer materials. The focus on reducing weight (without compromising on strength and structural rigidity), durability and aesthetics has always been there. Going forward, there’s an increasing need for materials that allow the embedding of various types of electronic sensors and, in some cases, the desire for translucence that allows LED backlighting for a stylistic effect. Soft-touch plastics for control surfaces, which are able to integrate electronics and provide touch-sensitive haptic feedback, are also likely to become more popular in the coming years and will require the development of new, cost-effective materials.
All of the above doesn’t mean that premium materials like leather, metal, glass and wood currently used on high-end cars will disappear. But yes, they will increasingly be complemented with new composite materials that can be easily moulded into complex shapes, be fire and stain resistant, withstand sustained hard use and be easily recyclable. Indeed, the need for improved fuel economy and reduced emissions will indirectly continue to spur the development of advanced thermoplastics, which will increasingly be used in automotive interiors in the future.
Despite all the media attention it gets these days, fully autonomous driving is still far away in the distant future, saddled as it is with many technology challenges and government regulations. Still, someday, self-driving cars will become production reality and their interiors are likely to be very different from what we currently know and love. Just think about it – with no need for one of the occupants to be the driver, and no need for that one person to keep his hands on a steering wheel all the time, it changes the entire paradigm of how cars will be used. People could be sitting in a position where they’re facing each other, talking, working, watching a movie or even having a meal. So far, so great, but this will also bring many challenges for designers and engineers. Currently, they know that all four (or five, or seven…) occupants will be sitting in a forward-facing position and within the given confines of how far their seats will recline or move front and aft, their relative position is ‘known’ at all times.
Now imagine a self-driving car with ‘free seating,’ where people could be sitting facing any direction, doing as they please. Great, but for engineers, the challenge may be in areas like designing crumple zones, seatbelt anchoring and positioning and airbag placement. If you don’t know how/where a person will be sitting at any given point in time, how do you design safety systems for that occupant? It’s something that technology suppliers like ZF, Bosch and Continental are already thinking about, and some answers should be forthcoming in the next few years.
In the meanwhile, some companies that supply seating systems are already in on the action and are using mechatronics to design next generation seats, which may be hugely more adjustable that what users get with current automotive seats. New functions, shown on prototype seats, include the capability to move automatically for easier ingress and egress, 180-degree rotation, full reclining with armrests that adjust accordingly, and the capability to be folded flat and lowered into the floor space completely. In keeping with the seats, display panels and instrument clusters will also be configurable, with floating HUD systems that can be controlled via pre-defined gestures.
THE WAY FORWARD
To summarise, we can safely say that data and connectivity, electrification and autonomous driving will be some of the key drivers that will shape car interiors of the future. Elements like infotainment and navigation, which can sometimes be seen as ‘add-on gizmos’ on current cars, will see seamless integration and will become an integral part of the car and its user experience. With improved smartphone integration and, hopefully, interface unification between smartphone and automotive operating systems, cars will become an extension of their users’ digital lives. With new materials, safety and comfort will be dramatically improved and, in the distant future, when autonomous driving becomes reality, the passenger cabin will change completely, freeing occupants from present day constraints.
While engines, transmissions, power and performance are often headline figures when it comes to cars, automotive interiors is, perhaps, the next big frontier for designers and engineers. How the next 2-3 decades will shape up, nobody really knows, but be prepared to expect the unexpected.
TEXT: Sameer Kumar