What were the highlights of 2019’s auto interior innovations and presentations? What new ideas, features, and phenomena emerged? Which ones look set to gain traction? Which one’s merit special attention? A top-level list, not an exhaustive one, might include EVs and AVs with strong focus on interiors at motor and technology shows, buyer and driver resistance to new technology, driver monitoring, smart functional surfaces and plastronics, motion sickness countermeasures, passive safety upgrades, voice user interfaces, new kinds of interior lighting, lightweighting, leather alternatives, and interior air quality.
The roster of relevant events DVN-I covered in 2019 presents a wide array of new interior aspects in both production cars and concept previews of what transport might look like in the near (or far) future. All of this is in context of rapidly changing topography in the world of automotive transport: established automakers feel increasingly urgent pressure to prove they are relevant, leading runners in the race for new mobility. New participants in the field, including digital outfits, want to be recognized for the innovative products and services they offer. Meanwhile, the general perception—perhaps fueled by popular media—is that fully autonomous, self-driving cars are just around the corner, coming soon.
Reality is very different. At the big auto shows, EVs are central. Practically every exhibitor presented EVs or components and systems for EVs. From an interior perspective, electric vehicle power is not (yet?) a key discriminant, except as whole-vehicle reconfiguration for electric motivation—battery and motor instead of fuel tank, engine, exhaust system, etc—alters the spaces available for the interior. New open body architecture on modular platforms could create much more opportunity for interior architecture, along with the tunnel-free underbody.
CES was a bit different: it was mostly dedicated to car interiors within the context of connected and autonomous vehicles, with occupants unleashed from the driving task and able to do more or less whatever else they want. Occupant experience is the key within car interiors; the space is at a new crossroads of comfort, connectivity, entertainment, gaming, and everything else to use time previously lost to driving.
At the Tokyo Motor Show there was significant presence of major international suppliers—Faurecia, Schaeffler, Mahle, Continental, Marelli, and Bosch, for example. And the Japanese supplier industry was, of course, robustly represented (Toyota Boshoku, Tokai Rika, Toyoda Gosei, Denso, Aisin, Jteckt, TS Tech, et al) with numerous interior components and demonstrators on interior space concepts based on autonomous driving.
From all these demonstrations, we infer some salient points, categorized here:
Driver and technology
Drivers still want to drive, and are a little skittish about new technology; they prefer driver assistance rather than giving up the whole driving task. Overall that’s the result of many independent surveys we’ve reported along the year. So the mobility revolution faces stiff headwinds of consumer behavior and preferences deeply ingrained by long habit and
resistant to change. Shared mobility may attract people, especially younger ones, but overall about half the surveyed population said they expect not to change how they interact with vehicular transport over the next three years. In that context, are Lyft and Uber and other such services sustainable, or will they prove to be just a fad? The answer isn’t necessarily obvious; surprisingly, regular use of ride-hailing services has decreased in the last two years all over the world. Use of multimodal mobility remains occasional, except in Asia where it accounts for 30% of trips taken.
Overall, then, there is a major opportunity and a real need for automakers, suppliers, mobility providers, and regulatory authorities to help educate consumers and further develop acceptability of these technologies. It suggests the auto industry should invest more in perfecting ADAS, interior convenience, and services to help drivers and occupants to feel relieved from tasks and cognitive load.
New Car Tech Will Aggravate—and Ameliorate—Motion Sickness
The mobility of the future is changing, and so are the needs of passengers. This is why already today new interior concepts are needed to mitigate problems amplified by new mobility scenarios. Motion sickness is caused by repeated motion, as from a vehicle, that agitates the fluid in the inner ear. Prolonged stationary travel is another increasing issue Due to the increasing variety of mobility options and constant viewing of smartphone screens; the issue is rapidly growing more relevant. When autonomous vehicles become common, the percentage of passengers will increase because of drivers becoming passengers who no longer need to keep eyes on the road, and vehicle occupancy will likewise increase because of shared mobility.
Many companies and outfits—including Daimler, Faurecia, ZF, Visteon, Yanfeng, and UMTRI—presented ideas in 2019 to reduce the feeling of motion and allow occupants to see more of what is happening outside the vehicle. The introduction of motion—not just massaging—to automotive seating could be a significant advance in protecting the occupant from the negative health impact of remaining seated and stationary.
DMS (driver monitoring systems) have been getting a lot of
developmental attention lately to cater for safe and easy handoffs between
human and autonomous driving required in L3 vehicles. DMS could also offer other
benefits in managing fatigue, cognitive load, personalization, and health
monitoring. Stereo cameras can offer more data points and improved
functionalities, making them a natural choice for adding more DMS functions. Automakers
and suppliers are expected to enter into more partnerships with medical companies,
universities, and technology firms to identify new opportunities and
technologies in the DMS space. Drivers already need to be monitored to avoid
drowsiness and cars are increasingly connected, at least through a smart phone.
Sensors in the car will monitor changes in the physical movements of both the
driver and the car to determine if an intervention is required. Cameras focused
on the driver’s facial features will sense changes to pupil dilatation and
whether the eyes are open. Sensors on the steering wheel can tell how reactive
the individual’s hands are behind the wheel. Other sensors fitted to the car
itself will sense whether the car is moving erratically. AI will detect phone usage,
smoking while driving, and blood alcohol level before driving.
Smart Functional Surfaces in Tomorrow’s Interiors
Automakers and suppliers are having to prioritize the driver and passenger experience in whole new ways, and HMI, the human-machine interface, is central. Yesterday’s knobs, dials, buttons, switches, and other physical controls are rapidly giving way to touch screens, and futuristic further developments like holographic, gestural, and really good voice controls are in development to better integrate human/machine interactions into the occupant experience. More broadly, smart surfaces can integrate a variety of technology including coatings, films, multifunctional transparent surface treatments, OLEDs, backlighting, metal mesh touch sensors in plastic, integrated touchscreen film technology, haptics through polymer transducers, integrated heaters, and printed electronics. Functional surfaces are also an entry point for reconfigurable systems which ease customization by brand, model, and individual preference.
Plastronics—the integration of electronics in plastic—and plastic parts decoration, including touch and backlighting, are bringing a perfect union of form, design and functions to the new interior surfaces.
Passive Safety upgrades
Safety is growing more complicated, not just because of increasing demand for better safety performance, but also because of more automated vehicles and more driver assistance systems. Due to the increasing variety of mobility options, occupant positions and activities, and constant viewing of smartphone screens, the safety issue is rapidly growing. When autonomous vehicles become common, the percentage of passengers will increase; drivers will become passengers who no longer need to keep eyes on the road, and vehicle occupancy will likewise increase because of shared mobility. Industry is innovating to protect occupants in their new use cases:
Autoliv, for example, has developed a new “life cell” airbag, which provides protection regardless of how a driver or passenger is seated. Additionally, a new Autoliv front center airbag helps avoid driver-to-interior and driver-to-passenger impact; the first commercial application is with Hyundai.
ZF, meanwhile, showed their SHI Cockpit (for “Safe Human Interaction”) made in partnership with Faurecia. In it, advanced assistance systems and automated driving functions communicate with the driver as simply and efficiently as possible.
Honda co-developed a new four-zone airbag with Autoliv. It has a center chamber, two outward-projecting side chambers that create a wide base across the dashboard, and a “sail panel” that stretches between the two side chambers at their outermost edge. Honda describes it as a “catcher’s mitt” where it’s targeting at an off-axis, 20° to 30°, where now the occupant isn’t coming straight into the restraint system. That’s because in self-driving cars the passenger is likely to be out of a traditional seated position—with seats swiveled into a conversation mode, for example.
Hyundai Mobis has developed a new safety technology for protecting passengers through interworking with the autonomous driving sensors. It’s called the Safety Integrated Control Module, and it combines two ECUs for airbags and electronic seatbelts into a single unit.
Voice User Interface
A VUI (voice user interface) opens the door to spoken occupant interaction, using speech recognition for voice command. Amazon’s Alexa is one of the leading technologies in this field, and GM recently signed a major deal to bring Alexa Automotive to a wide array of Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac models. The voice assistant is playing an increasing role in autonomous cars of the future.
But here again, it has to be simple, and must simply work—all the time, every time. Experts all agreed that frictionless usability of a user interface, including a voice-command interface, strongly influences usage rate, and eventually take rates. Another point of agreement among experts: today’s first equipped models are not yet at that level.
Interior lighting is growing much more centrally important. Light is no longer in the car just to help find things in the dark; now it’s central to creating ambiance, providing information, generating alerts, personalizing the cabin according to vehicle occupants’ choices…all in all, lighting is playing an increasingly important role in the comfort and safety of everyone inside the car. Many players are coming into that field, including DVN Interior members such as Osram, Design LED, the Interior Lighting open ISELED Alliance (28 members, including Hella, Valeo, Magna…). They’re developing intelligent RGB LED technology for automotive interiors and providing innovative solutions for interior lighting.
Lighter materials, as well as materials allowing miniaturization of components to reduce package space, will continue to be a driving force of vehicle development. This, in turn, is creating opportunity for automakers increase interior space and/or reduce the exterior dimensions of the car for a given cabin volume. With CO2 reduction getting more and more important, these types of opportunities are crucial to fielding vehicles responsive to today’s needs and wants.
Even if such efforts could arguably be called futile in context of the very heavy batteries uniformly found in EVs, we’ve seen thinner seat structures, IP skins, lighter energy absorbing material, new architecture, extended wheelbase, miniaturization of actuators and lights, and otherwise like that.
Several new leather alternatives have popped up recently in car interiors. Industry has long regarded leather as the signature of premium car interiors (at least in certain markets), but now pressure to move away from leather is growing: raising cattle and producing leather heavily contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and animal harm—the Vegan movement is now becoming a car selling argument.
Tesla artificial leather, Volvo’s Weave Tech coating in the Polestar 2, Aston Martin’s cashmere in the Lagonda, the apple-based synthetic leather in VW’s ID Space Vizzion concept, Audi’s e-tron concepts with synthetic leather, Mercedes Artico, BMW Sensatec, Piñatex synthetic leather based on pineapple leaf fibers, and of course polyurethane leatherette and Alcantara suede.
Interior Air Quality
The industry is progressively recognizing that pollutant levels are often higher inside the car, because cars take in emissions from surrounding vehicles and recirculate them. Studies have found that as much as half of the pollutants inside cars come from the vehicles immediately ahead, especially if those vehicles are heavy polluters such as diesel trucks. Pollutants enter the car cabin through air vents and other openings, because vehicles are not built to be airtight.
The focus on IAQ (Interior Air Quality) has gained traction everywhere, but especially in China because of heavy air pollution there—and high attention to children, who are more susceptible to poor air quality while their lungs are developing.
For instance, at the Shanghai auto show Valeo showed a variety of IAQ solutions to reduce the impact of ambient pollution on a vehicle’s occupants—filters, digital monitoring, air recirculation, and purification. And Yanfeng sanitizes interior air with their “wellness pod”.