DETROIT—In the cockpit of the future, passengers will recline on seats made from sustainable materials, bristling with hidden sensors that will anticipate their perfect temperature, their favorite songs and even when a sore back might be impending.
In front of them, pillar-to-pillar screens will bring the home entertainment experience into the car, while augmented-reality displays built into the windshield show the nearest restaurant or warn of bad weather ahead.
A vision of a coming reality, or wishful thinking?
A truly reimagined cockpit might be decades away, suppliers and experts say, but there are small revolutions happening in every part of the interior that are fundamentally changing the nature of the mobility experience—and offering new and larger revenue streams.
They are being driven by several trends: Increasingly sophisticated consumer electronics; electrification; high-performance, centralized computing; and the promise of self-driving vehicles.
Taken together, these trends are shifting the value in the vehicle from the drivetrain to the interior—in particular, the user experience, or UX.
"UX is the new horsepower, so auto makers are investing more and more in the interior" said Ulrich Lueders, the head of strategy and portfolio at Continental's human-machine interface business unit. "The design of the interior is getting more and more important, whereas in the past the engine was the main differentiator."
Continental's "cockpit of the future" is focused on what's in front of the driver: the instrument panel, screens, head-up displays and the electronics that power them.
Lear Chief Technology Officer John Absmeier agrees. "It's no longer differentiation through horsepower or aesthetics, although those are still important for consumers," he said. "The battleground for differentiation is in the cockpit experience, if you will, the cockpit of the future."
Lear is seeking ways to pack more technology into seating to improve configurability, modularity, health and wellness, comfort and safety. And through its recent acquisition of Xevo, Lear is providing connected services such as contactless in-vehicle ordering, for example, through a new collaboration with Grubhub for Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram vehicles in North America.
Faurecia, which supplies a variety of interior components, has made "cockpit of the future" something of a tagline, but it is a key part of its business strategy, said Gregoire Ferre, vice president, cockpit of the future, digital transformation and artificial intelligence.
"We are not trying to take a siloed approach on one product," he said. "We are trying to bring 'systems of systems' in place to enhance the end-user experience."
Among Faurecia's cutting-edge offerings are Trenza, a graphical user interface (GUI) that lets users access menus using finger swipes; a partnership with Aptoide, an independent app store, that will appear on Volkswagen Group vehicles in South America; and a new acquisition, IRYStec, which optimizes screen consumption of electricity and lighting levels.
Sustainability also is a critical subject, for consumers, auto makers, suppliers and the investment markets. Grupo Antolin, the Spanish supplier of interior panels, is focused on integration, with sustainability as a guiding principle.
For example, Javier Villacampa, head of corporate innovation at Grupo Antolin, notes that while integrating components into a panel might reduce the opportunities for recycling that may be offset by reduction in weight, packaging and transport. "The best way to be sustainable is to offer fewer materials," he said.
A paradigm shift
Aaron Dale, an analyst at IHS Markit, said the idea of a "cockpit of the future," is not something to be taken literally but rather as a road map.
"We don't take it as a gospel but it really does give us a bit of a vision into the types of trends that each of these suppliers are seeing and what is possible in the future."
Dale cautioned that there are several hurdles that need to be cleared before these suppliers' visions become reality. "The one big game changer is autonomy—that is the key step when the driver can disengage, both physically and mentally, from supervising the vehicle."
Only then—a point at least five years in the future, he said—can the cockpit be completely redesigned. In the meantime, Dale pointed to what he called a "driver-centric evolution of a smart cockpit."
According to Dale, that cockpit of the near future, as it might be called, involves innovations that these suppliers are working to bring to market, including augmented-reality head-up displays, advanced voice recognition, "intelligent" seating, camera rear-view systems, display technology such as haptic touch (which provides tactile feedback), multi-display modules and 3D displays.
Continental: All about digital
Mechanical instrument clusters are practically a thing of the past, Lueders said. Now and in the future, digital processes will be used to control the car and determine how drivers and passengers interact with the vehicle.
"All of this will be driven out of a cockpit high-performance computer, controlling all the HMI interface and also communications with the cloud," he said. "This will enable new functionalities like online services" in the vehicle.
Other interior trends that Continental is driving fall under the "immersive" category, including augmented-reality head-up displays and 3D screens, such as on the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and in the mainstream segment, on the Peugeot 208 and 2008.
Looking ahead to the second half of the next decade, Lueders said so-called "shy tech," functions that appear only when needed, will become more prominent.
All these innovations will mean the value in the cockpit area will increase sharply. Compared with a few years ago, when the dashboard had a mechanical instrument cluster and a central navigation system, digital displays combined with a powerful computer and head-up displays will roughly double the value. Add connected services and software content, and that figure could triple, he said.
Lear: 'Delightful user experience'
"The inside of the car today is somewhat like a feature phone from 2005," Lear's Absmeier said, "You have to go menus deep to find things, and there are knobs and buttons all over the place. And frankly the experience is overwhelming for most."
"The name of the game is providing a delightful user experience, whether through configurability or through services on demand or making the experiences intuitive and easy," he said.
Lear sees the seat as an intelligent device that can be enhanced in the areas of comfort, safety, wellness and sound, Absmeier said. "We call the seat the cradle of user experience in the car," he said.
Biometric sensors will be able to automatically adjust heating and cooling, lumbar supports or the angle of recline, and deliver services such as massages. Lear is marketing its intelligent seating under the INTU brand name.
"We can keep you comfortable, and not even let you know you're getting uncomfortable, by sensing what you are doing physiologically," he said.
From a safety standpoint, these sensors could keep the seat in an optimal position in the event of a crash. Lear has already introduced its Configure Plus system, which mounts seats on rails for easy reconfiguration, especially in electric and autonomous vehicles. It will appear on VW's small vans in Europe this year, Absmeier said.
He declined to give a specific value as seats gain technology, except to say it was "definitely on the rise."
Added content includes wires, connectors, sensors, controllers and software. Seats can also deliver added value through pay services such as heating, enhanced adjustability or massage on demand, which can be enabled through Lear's collaboration with Xevo, a cloud-based software platform.
Faurecia: 'Systems of systems'
The French supplier has created a Cockpit of the Future cross-business group entity as a way to showcase and market its interior products, said Ferre, who leads the unit. Ferre describes the unit as creating a "trickle-down effect" on all Faurecia products, opening doors to new business.
"My objective as leader of Cockpit of the Future is to present an enhanced experience [for passengers], and to make sure because of this that our business groups are able to push more value through to the customer," he said.
His unit is offering what he calls "systems of systems," from a full dashboard to a full interior, with seating, lighting and panels. Even if Faurecia is not able to sell a complete "ecosystem," Ferre said, the presentation helps the company "make more business where we are not supposed to be."
As an example, he said, presenting such seamlessly integrated systems has allowed Faurecia to win five contracts for a joint venture with Aptoide, an independent app marketplace.
Going forward, Faurecia is seeking to better understand how drivers and passengers interact with their vehicles, through consumer studies and presentations. "We are trying to deliver answers to the right pain points" that such research identifies, Ferre said.
Among them are interiors that are designed for drivers rather than all passengers. "We need to design vehicles and provide experiences for people who are sitting in the vehicle and are being driven," he said, noting that it would become more important in the future, because of ride-hailing services, shared mobility and autonomous vehicles.
Another focus is to optimize human-machine interfaces as they become more powerful and full-featured. "It's not always obvious how to trigger the voice assistant, or how to navigate the menus to activate this service or that, even in brands that are very digital-minded," he said.
"I think our customers are on this quest for what is the optimal HMI," Ferre said, adding that a "less is more" approach might be the path in the future. He pointed to Faurecia's Trenza interface, which replaces drop down menus with a four-panel display that activates functions with finger motions, which he described as "fun and natural."
"Software came in and the vehicle became a Christmas tree, and now we are empowering customers with the ability to reduce that Christmas tree effect into a more intuitive and lean approach," he said.
Grupo Antolin: Sustainable integration
The Spanish supplier of interior panels and headliners is integrating more and more technology into the surfaces of the interior, while at the same time focusing on sustainability. It has recently presented a virtual concept car showcasing how these integrated systems could work together.
"In the future the car will be autonomous, but today it has to be safer, more sustainable in materials and weight, and also more cost-effective," Villacampa said.
One area that Grupo Antolin is emphasizing is lighting. "In the past, lighting was a matter of aesthetics; now lighting can give you information," he said.
Because Grupo Antolin works with a lot of material—foam, fabrics, wiring, structural elements—and produces components that need to be packaged and shipped, it is working with customers to become more sustainable.
In one example, Grupo Antolin is eliminating wiring in the headliner by using functional printing, in which electronics circuits can be printed on various surfaces. Other techniques includes the use of plastronics, in which electronic components are incorporated into molded plastic materials.
Villacampa said sustainability can also involve more efficient packaging and production processes, even at an auto maker's factory.
"We have been working on (sustainability) for years but now auto makers are demanding real solutions," he said. "This is mandatory. We have to work to reduce the weight and the costs of our systems."