NOVI, Mich.—Developments in technology are changing what manufacturers are putting in new vehicles, and it is all about how the innovations are being integrated, according to automotive interior experts.
"We're seeing that our customers are demanding a lot more in the areas like communication, connectivity, decoration, entertainment, and we expect that those trends are going to continue in the interior," said Nora Beevers, director of innovation at auto supplier Grupo Antolin North America.
Beevers was one of three interiors experts who spoke at the Plastics and Rubber in Automotive conference, held Jan. 15 in Novi.
Asked whether one of those areas of focus is more important than others, she said they are all equally important, but "different things in different vehicles are important," such as a high-end vehicle vs. a ride-sharing vehicle.
Jeffrey Helms, global automotive sales director of engineered materials at materials firm Celanese Corp., sees a big effort around weight and cost, aesthetics, tactility, and touch and feel.
Matthew Thomas, interior trim and overhead systems architect at General Motors Co., echoed Beevers' and Helms' statements.
"On top of that, though, understanding what the customers want and understanding how to integrate those customer wants into what the vehicle can support as well as paying for the battery and producing the costs but also the safety of those and maintaining the quality," Thomas said.
Beevers discussed how Grupo Antolin is working on decoration that includes natural materials such as stone and cork because the interior of vehicles will become increasingly important to consumers.
"We're also going to have a lot more surface area because we're going to be integrating smart surfaces," she said. "Before, we had all these buttons and now we're going to have these areas where it's a blank space, so we want to make that look attractive for the customers."
The company is also looking at the concept of robotaxis, or autonomous taxis, that will be used by multiple users, from young to old.
"We see it being a little bit higher-end than a standard ride-share because people might have a preference," Beevers said. "I'm sure there are going to be different options—like there are now with Uber and Lyft—but consumers are going to develop different preferences and … if I'm going out on a Saturday night to an event, I might not want an Uber-type ride-share; it might not be as clean as I would like. We might see a different market developed like a more luxurious robotaxi."
From a supplier perspective, Thomas said, the most important thing is to bring in the partners and get them involved to see what can—or cannot—be done.
"A lot of these smart surfaces will have multiple suppliers involved, so that means we'll have to bring in supplier teams that are all cooperating together so it has to be a team-based approach where we integrate these things with a common goal for the customer. …The key is bringing them in early; that's the common theme we have in advanced development," he said. "We need a supplier partner to understand what we actually do, down to the millimeter."
Lights, cameras, actions
Ambient lighting has been around for several years, as Helms said, but materials will play a role in design cues in future vehicles.
"How you deliver light to a specific area is one thing," he said. "We're starting to see things like using optical light pipes as a delivery method as opposed to using bulbs. …There's a lot going on in lighting."
Beevers said there is a big shift into functional lighting vs. ambient lighting.
"In other markets, in Europe, ambient lighting is very popular. Here in the U.S., it's maybe not as popular. A lot of our customers say, "Oh, that looks nice, but what does it do?" They want some function behind it," she said.
"So, what can we communicate to the occupants of the vehicle? Maybe we want to change the light color, indicate it's icy on the roads, maybe you should slow down, maybe we want to integrate something if they're getting sleepy like flashing a light to wake them up. We're seeing it more as a way to communicate information," Beevers added.
Interior dashboard screen displays might seem like they keep growing in size, but Beevers said OEM customers are looking for better integration "because not everybody is very comfortable with a screen."
"The more information you try to cram into your screen, the more inconvenient it can be for a consumer. If I have to go through 12 screens to get to my heated seat option, I might start to get a little irritated," she said.
Beevers said gesture-controlled cameras can track different actions.
"I think that we're going to start ? to become a little smarter in the way we do things and not just rely on screens," she said.
Cleanliness and safety are still two big factors for future vehicles.
Panelists discussed the possibility of cleanable vs. replaceable interior components for high-use vehicles such as autotaxis.
"From a specification perspective, we're looking at changing our specifications on length of time and service. And sometimes instead of having a length of three years, maybe it's going to have a length of six months and you rotate it instead of trying to clean it," Thomas said. "There has definitely been a lot of consideration on balancing that."
Asked whether safety regulations are playing a larger role in the future of automobiles, Thomas said regulations have only gotten stricter. Beevers said, from an interiors perspective, they have a lot of questions "because there are some things that we don't have specifications for."
"When people talk about, 'OK, now we're going to turn our seat around.' Well, wait a second, now the air bags and headliner are in the pillars or in the roof. We think a lot about those things," she said. "What's going to happen if I move my seat to a different area of the vehicle? How do we keep the occupant safe? We hope one day there won't be any crashes, but there's going to be some transition time."