This article also appears in
Subscribe now »
Faurecia’s Cockpit of the Future signals many cabin design and technology innovations that will be in production long before highly automated vehicles become common. (Faurecia)

Autonomy already influencing vehicle interior design

New-mobility thinking is changing how interiors will evolve for all vehicles.

Just about everyone’s seen a recent rendering of future vehicle interiors, but high-function driver assistance, automated driving and mobility as a service (MaaS) are new dimensions rapidly altering how the cabin environment is being envisioned. Ironically, while near-term prospects for privately-owned autonomous vehicles (AVs) have hit the hype curve’s downward slope, research and development into how passengers will interact with new-mobility technology will result in interior designs and features that reach the market long before average consumers experience automated driving.

Major automotive interior suppliers and AV technology innovators such as Waymo insist designs and features envisioned for AV cabins are desirable for any vehicle. According to interior-design experts, the top emerging trends include larger and more user-friendly screen-based human-machine interfaces (HMI), reconfigurable seating and individual-focused cockpit “environments”. There are also safety- and health-promoting features ready to be deployed, such as biomedical monitoring. This can provide basic health metrics, but also monitor a driver’s state of attention or inebriation to determine fitness to operate the vehicle at various levels of automated driver-assist functionality.

Jeff Stout, executive director, global innovation at Tier 1 supplier Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, said the company’s 2018 XiM20 show vehicle continues as an incubator for innovations, and could be used for an SAE Level 5 AV. “That (XiM20) was our best execution or vision of what we think a full Level-5 autonomous experience could be, introducing the idea of ‘enclosure’ versus ‘exposure,’ the analogies to our everyday life today,” Stout said. “Where we go to a restaurant and we get to choose whether we're in a cozy booth in a back, or sitting out by the sidewalk and watching people go by.”

A cocoon for all
Although the notion of individualized environments for each vehicle occupant is not new, it wasn’t until MaaS became a reality – first thru ride-hailing/ridesharing enterprises and now in an expanding spectrum of autonomous-shuttle demonstration projects – that the need to create distinctly segmented cabin spaces became obvious. Considerable interior design and technology development is now committed to deploying aspects of the individual-space ideal in the near-term market.

Soon-to-be-seen are MaaS-inspired personalization innovations such as interior supplier Faurecia’s “audio bubble.” These seats are designed with audio drivers embedded in the back and bottom cushions, coupled with sound-shaping software to direct audio content only to that seat’s occupant . Like other cabin-technology suppliers, Faurecia’s VP of Midwest Technology Platform Todd Fletemier said he sees its role evolving into a true technology integrator.

Development of the audio bubble will no doubt be aided by Faurecia’s early-2019 acquisition of Japan-based audio specialist Clarion, creating the new Faurecia Clarion Electronics (FCE) business unit. It’s an acquisition strategy many automotive interiors suppliers are mimicking. “Clarion has that expertise in center stacks and some of the ADAS [advanced driver-assistance systems],” Fletemier said. Faurecia is working with partners as an integrator for what it calls the Cockpit of the Future (CoF), elements of which it intended to reveal at CES 2020 in a current-generation Ford F-150 pickup truck.

Fletemier said the choice of the F-150 was intended to demonstrate the near-term viability of many of the CoF innovations. “That's a great vehicle for us to be able to showcase because we're [already] a major supplier of the product,” he said, adding, “and it allows us to take those technologies and to showcase them as one, as in what's possible inside of that interior.”

Seating and electrical specialist Lear’s riff on personalized audio spaces is called SoundZone. The company expects upcoming ridesharing models fitted with its Intu intelligent seats to offer the feature, which it promotes as “the ultimate in customization and privacy. A similar concept applies to heating and cooling. Personalized thermal management lets every occupant enjoy a seat that enables an individual climate zone. These systems will be particularly useful in electric vehicles (EVs), where maintaining climate control for the entire cabin is less efficient.

New seating versatility
As AVs will allow passengers to partake in cabin activities that may take them out of conventional seating positions, the “cocoon” concept also is a safety vision. Faurecia has joined with ZF to develop its Advanced Versatile Structure, a seat with “smart kinematics” that recline, lift, adjust and swivel the seat to a variety of positions. The mechanism can quickly return the seat to the driving position and airbags and seatbelts are integrated into the seat structure to maintain optimum effectiveness regardless of seating position.

Faurecia and other cabin-technology innovators also are interested in the potential for in-vehicle biometric capabilities. Omar Ben Abdelaziz, the company’s project partner for the CoF, said a selection of biometric sensors can monitor biological signals such as heart and breathing rates, skin conductivity and even blood pressure and heart rate variability. He added that Faurecia is collaborating with a customer to integrate smart watch-like photoplethysmography (PPG) sensors to help monitor a driver’s condition.

At last October’s 2019 Tokyo Motor Show, Mitsubishi Electric’s Emirai S concept car showcased a biometric monitoring system paired with a near-infrared camera to measure occupants’ heart rate, with another sensor measuring skin temperature. The company said the system can analyze occupant conditions from sudden sickness to fatigue and drowsiness.

Faurecia has begun a study it calls “digital wellness,” working with Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District. “Shortly after CES we will launch an innovation challenge in Toronto with that [MaRS] ecosystem around a concept that we're calling biometric safety,” Fletemier said. “If we were to take this data or take this information that we can gather, how can we enhance the safety of the vehicles on an overall basis?”

Bye-bye buttons
As touchscreens get larger and the HMI debate rages on, initiatives are underway to integrate controls into cabin trim and panels, ushering in a new era of holistically designed smart surfaces. “The future is heavily dependent on the fusion of electronic and trim componentry,” Yanfeng’s Stout said, noting that technology integration and aesthetics will converge in multi-function cabin surfaces.

Examining the cabin illustrations accompanying this story, there is barely a button in sight, which is no accident. Nearly every automotive interior designer is on a mission to ban the button. Like it or not, at least some of this will be accomplished with touchscreens – albeit more effectively placed. Faurecia’s Fletemier said his company is working intently on dash-top “pillar to pillar” displays that he claims will help alleviate driver distraction.

Suppliers are developing force-sensing technology to embed controls in cabin surfaces and trim, or beneath glass screens. Many are managed by software and artificial intelligence, appearing only when necessary. These features will be available long before high-level automation. “A very fluid design language, where the displays are integrated in the overall presentation of the door and instrument panel and floor console,” Stout described, “and it’s all one smooth, seamless organic surface.”

The SAE Level-5 cabin use case doesn’t need to be defined today, Stout added, but, “we need the tools and the toolbox product-wise to be able to execute that when the time comes. To accommodate even Level 3 with all of the higher level ADAS functions, having that be a very intuitive HMI. That's really the heart of where the development activity is taking place today.”

To get it right, make it uniform
For Waymo, which recently provided its 100,000th ride in an AV, building trust in MaaS means giving consumers cabin-individualization options while also ensuring a uniform experience. “We build trust with our riders through consistency,” said Ryan Powell, Waymo’s head of UX research and design in a mid-2019 blog post. “Our passengers interact with Waymo across many different points throughout their journey, from our app to our in-car passenger screens, or even during a conversation with one of our rider support agents.

“We also deliver consistency from ride to ride,” Powell added. “Our riders like knowing that every time they step into a Waymo vehicle, they’re getting the same experienced driver, and from a design perspective, they’re also viewing the same type of information on our screens, being greeted by familiar sounds and have the same choices for how to control and customize their ride.”

But familiarity is going to have its limits. “In three years,” predicts Yanfeng’s Stout, “it wouldn't surprise me if there's an automaker who has a vehicle on the market that has no buttons. There won't be a mechanical button in the entire interior.”

Continue reading »