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Michigan Senator Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor, at right) discussed autonomous safety during a panel at the 2016 SAE World Congress. (Terry Costlow)

Car sickness, occupant seating and politics will shape autonomous vehicle interiors

The eventual arrival of autonomous vehicles will transform vehicle interiors, but engineers making the changes will have to consider issues as diverse as motion sickness and legislative regulations written by a range of politicians.

Autonomous concepts have shown front and rear seat passengers facing each other or angling in to make conversation easier. Such vehicle designs will require input from sources as diverse medical specialists who understand motion sickness and politicians who write the laws that govern safety.

These changes won’t come for some time, until vehicles can be truly autonomous (SAE Levels 4 and 5) even in urban environments. Experts on a 2016 SAE World Congress panel dubbed “Autonomous Driving Technologies – How They Affect Interiors Design, Packaging and Occupant Behaviors?” noted that vehicles that operate semi-autonomously on highways won’t see significant changes in the vehicle cabin.

“For the foreseeable future, autonomous [vehicle] interiors will be much the same as today because drivers have to be engaged,” said George Halow, Strategy Manager, Ford Motor Co. “Changing that will require a lot of collaboration between industry and our government partners to architect regulations.”

Longer term, interior designs will evolve to let people rest, chat or interact with larger displays that enable them to engage with a multitude of Internet-enabled activities. Seat positions will be a main factor in these layouts. Until collisions are fully eliminated—if that is indeed possible—safety will remain a major concern.

“We know a lot about safety when people are facing frontwards, but there’s a lot to learn if people start facing sideways,” said Thomas Gould of Johnson Controls.

Those safety considerations will be examined closely by regulators as well as by vehicle developers. Safety standards and laws will have to be changed before futuristic concepts can be deployed in vehicle interiors.

“We’re very concerned with safety,” said Michigan state senator Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor). “Will seats face forward? If not, we need to look at airbags; you have to know the person’s position if they’re needed.”

Many futurists say that accidents will be eliminated once all vehicles on roadways are autonomous. That will mean vehicles can be made with lighter materials, reducing fuel consumption. It can also create more space inside the cabin.

“As we get deeper into autonomy, we will change the paradigm of safety,” said Jeffrey Ronne, Director Global Advanced Vehicle Development at General Motors. “Think about all the mass that can be removed if you can take the airbags out.”

Panelists noted that when drivers aren’t in control, many are more inclined to suffer from car sickness. That may also increase for passengers if seats are arranged to look inward or backwards to facilitate communications between passengers.

“Motion sickness will be more of an issue. One third of adults suffer from some level of motion sickness,” said Robert Huber, VP of Innovation and Ventures at Faurecia. “We believe we can help mitigate that. We need to look at how to measure motion sickness and then go through testing.”

When semi-autonomous vehicles encounter unexpected situations, drivers will be asked to take over. That can be a major problem, since some studies have found that people fall asleep quickly when they aren’t actively involved in driving.

“As people start going from hands-on to hands-off, the transition is a tremendous hurdle,” Huber said. “Distractions can become the engagement. If people are on their phones or watching videos, they won’t fall asleep.”

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