DETROIT—How do you want to feel?
That was the grand rhetorical question posed by Gaia Crippa, a London-based materials specialist and colors, materials and finishes designer at Chris Lefteri Design Ltd., during her Nov. 7 presentation at the Society of Plastics Engineers' 2017 Design in Plastics conference.
To clarify, how do you want to feel when you're inside the vehicle of the future—it'll be autonomous, by the way—and what role do materials play in evoking positive emotions in passengers?
"Cars are related to emotions and feelings," Crippa said. "We remember how we felt on our first date. We remember how we felt when our first child was born, and we exactly remember the model of our first car and how we felt when we bought our first car."
My first car was a late 1990s Chevrolet Cavalier in deep purple with a dark gray fabric interior. I can still recall how I felt after passing my driver's test at 16 years old: relief, for one, especially once the parallel parking section was successfully completed, and an appreciation for the unknown. When I bought the Cavalier, it didn't matter how much money I would have to spend on gas each week because the world—or metro Detroit, rather—had opened before me.
Owning that car meant I could pick up my best friend, insert a mixed CD into the upgraded center console and go anywhere I wanted—usually to a late-night diner for endless cups of coffee and conversation. The interior of my Cavalier was absolutely a reflection of who I was at that age.
But, as Crippa said in her presentation, when we think about the future of automotive there's a growing shift between how we look at the cars of yesterday and today, and how we will look at the cars of tomorrow.
"Today, cars are more about something that allow us to move from A to B," she said. "Well, in the future, we know that … [autonomous vehicles] will become a space where we can spend time in a more meaningful way."
Audrey LaForest Materials specialist Gaia Crippa says autonomous vehicles will be a space where we can spend time in a more meaningful way.
Materials will matter
Eventually, we'll say sayonara to the days where being in a car means keeping your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. In the not-so-distant future, autonomous vehicles could be like an extension of your home—a space to relax, watch a movie, get some work done, Crippa said—and materials play a key role in achieving that balance among function, comfort, emotion and mood.
"There needs to be a filter between the inside and the outside. There needs to be translucent materials that allow for natural light to come in and [we need] to provide privacy, but not too much," Crippa said of autonomous vehicle interiors. "We need to have meaningful, sensory experiences: nice patterns, nice textures."
But what materials can meet all of the requirements for use in these automotive interiors of the future? Here's the short list, according to Crippa:
- Vibration-dampening foam for sound insulation ... because who wants to hear the hustle and bustle of traffic outside when you're trying to read, conduct a meeting or snooze?
- Translucent and easy-to-form polycarbonate. "We need PC plastic to create those large windows for a panoramic view," Crippa said, adding that replacing glass with PC helps with lightweighting.
- UV-responsive plastic additives for heat insulation.
- Soft and durable polyurethanes for enhanced comfort.
- In-mold decorative film with sensors, which can reduce the number of components. "We also need to have a lot of sensors and responsive surfaces because the car needs to be a smart car," she said.
- Polycarbonate with light-diffusing pigments for ambiance as well as personalization if it's a shared car.
- Plastics with antibacterial and odor-control additives.
- Durable and scratch-resistant surfaces, such as thermoplastic polyurethane.
- Vegan and eco-friendly leather alternatives to respect all users' values.
- Stain-resistant and washable textile coatings.
"As the car becomes autonomous, it changes completely the way we live inside the car," Crippa said. "The journey becomes more meaningful."