Something for everyone

Future car interiors will let motorists personalize controls, features and styling

It is Monday morning in 2010. The Juarez family - Mom, Dad and their teen-age son, Miguel - are setting off to work and school. Dad jumps into his car, which resembles his office at work. Its seats and climate controls are set to his liking. The onboard navigation system guides him along the quickest route.

Meanwhile, Miguel settles into the webbing of his seat and grabs the car's steering joystick. The car's high-tech instrument panel lights up like Las Vegas at night. He turns on the audio system and commands his MP3 player to offer a selection of rap music downloaded from the Internet.

Last to leave, Mom is greeted by her vehicle's comfortable cocoon, outfitted in the same soothing style as her living room. No gauges or controls are visible. She uses voice commands to operate whatever she requires.

All of this is possible, and much of it is likely, say a dozen automotive designers who visualize future vehicle interiors. While it is difficult to assess long-term trends, some developments appear certain:

* Consumers will customize their interiors. And they will change that interior repeatedly throughout the vehicle's life.

* Vehicles will be more spacious inside, even if exterior dimensions do not change. Space will allow more storage.

* Car owners will upgrade their vehicles' electronics continually as technology becomes available.

* Luxury interiors will feature new, environmentally friendly materials - such as cork or bamboo - plus translucent plastics.

Nowadays, designers often start by visualizing a car's interior first, then producing an exterior to accommodate it.

Indeed, interiors are gaining increased attention and resources of automakers.

'Until now, vehicle interiors have been the unsung hero of the car,' says Ralph Gilles, the lead designer of interiors for the first Chrysler LH cars and the Jeep Liberty. 'When you are buying a car, the interior is the deal maker. Yet, interiors have been vastly underrated.'

A decade from now, some car models will offer buyers so much choice that quite possibly no two interiors will be identical. Audi AG has begun to experiment with customizing interiors with its A6 sedan. Buyers can choose one of three interiors that cost the same but have different personalities.

Johnson Controls Inc., an interior supplier with headquarters in Plymouth, Michigan, tested the idea in its Vios concept a few years ago. Designers used the same exterior shell of a small car to create different interiors depending on the circumstances of its owner. Its assortment of interiors catered to a single person, a married mother of young children or a retiree. Other automakers will follow.

'The idea of equal but different in interiors will spread,' says John Hartnell, Ford's director of color and trim.

MORE CUSTOMIZING

Automakers are experimenting with instrument panels that can be reconfigured. These panels allow Dad, Mom and Junior to change the colors and fonts of the gauges of the family car to suit individual tastes. Each driver can choose to see or not see the gauges, depending on his or her preference for voice commands. The Ford Forty-Nine concept car and the Buick Bengal concept allow the driver to hide the gauges.

Customizing will take two forms. Automakers will build it into the cars - as with configurable displays - and motorists will add accessories after they purchase the car. Moreover, automakers will design cars to accommodate accessories more easily.

Some markets will move more quickly in this direction than others. Europeans - especially Germans - are more enthusiastic about customizing than their American peers. 'You don't feel complete without your own set of wheels, even on a mainstream Mondeo in Germany,' says Ford's Hartnell.

Further, a car owner will not have to live with the same interior throughout the life of the vehicle. Already, owners of Mercedes' Smart car can return to the dealership to install new exterior panels and interior trim. The next step will be cars that allow motorists to plug in aftermarket electronic gear, such as personal digital assistants, computers, onboard navigators and music players. The idea of 'plug and play' will apply to other components such as seats and trim.

Young motorists are especially likely to 'mix and match brands,' says Pat Murray, vice president of the technology and design division of Lear Corp., an interior supplier based in Southfield, Michigan. 'They buy an Apple computer. Then they buy a monitor, a CD-ROM and other peripherals from other companies. Unfortunately, those options aren't there for them in the automotive world right now.'

But they will be. Dealerships will become personalization centers, where motorists buy accessories to upgrade their vehicles. Murray predicts automakers will exploit the aftermarket by partnering with sporting goods makers, electronics manufacturers and race-car suppliers.

More space

More efficient use of interior space will be a top priority, given the likely constraints on a vehicle's size. 'We are rethinking the entire interior,' says Peter Davis, who heads General Motors' interior design in Detroit.

Mechanical items such as a vehicle's heating and air conditioning - which consumes up to a third of the instrument panel's precious space - will be moved to less crowded locations. For example, air ducts could be routed through the floor, while the controls are left on the instrument panel. 'There will be 'no more furnaces in the living room,' says Davis. The same will occur for other parts of the car.

Designers also expect future vehicles to have taller rooflines, which will make them more spacious inside. Vehicles such as the Opel Zafira, Renault Megane Scenic and Ford Focus have demonstrated the appeal of this approach.

Vehicles such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Focus are generating similar interest in North America. In vehicles with tall rooflines, designers can create space inside the headliner for more storage compartments and electronics. By adding features to the headliner, designers can avoid clutter on the instrument panel.

'We're literally looking at every inch of the vehicle creatively to figure out how we can give the customer more storage,' says John Phillips, Lear's director of advanced product development.

NO STEERING WHEEL

The conversion of mechanical components to electronic also will create more space. For instance, BMW AG already has dispensed with the gearshift in its new 7 series, opting instead for a shift-by-wire system.

The next step will be steer-by-wire, which eliminates the steering column. In vehicles aimed at young motorists, look for steering wheels to be replaced by joysticks. Bertone's Filo concept car features a joystick in place of a steering wheel. That allowed designers to install an instrument panel with a simple surface.

'If you have no mechanical configuration between the steering wheel and the rest of the car, you can have a completely different interior configuration,' says Stefan Sielaff, head of interior design at Audi. 'You might use an arm with nothing behind it to create a different architecture, making the whole cabin much lighter and more transparent.'

Although a joystick has not replaced the steering wheel in a production vehicle, it has been adapted for other functions.

Designers agree that BMW's iDrive system in the new 7 series is a sign of things to come. Audi has developed its own version of the technology, called MMI, which it showcased in the next-generation A8 concept at the Frankfurt auto show.

Both systems allow the motorist to adjust the stereo, telephone and telematics using one set of controls and a menu of commands. 'We are not so far away from Stanley Kubrick's idea of Hal, the on-board computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey,' says Audi's Sielaff.

In France, Renault SA has been working on its own menu-driven electronics system. Touch Design is featured in Renault's Talisman concept car. Talisman's seats remain fixed. Instead of adjusting the seat, the motorist changes the height and reach of the instrument panel and steering wheel.

More miniatures

To create more interior space, automakers will miniaturize components whenever possible. For example, automakers eventually might downsize the powertrain by designing compact fuel cells. That would allow automakers to expand the cabin, creating room for a limousine-style rear seat.

Even in a small car, 'You won't have to sit tight,' says Michikazu Masu, chief interiors designer at Toyota Motor Corp.

'Miniaturization is very important' to create more space, agrees Patrick Le Quement, Renault's design chief. 'With an increasing number of gadgets to be accommodated, it is vital that we strive to keep them as small as possible.'

To add space, designers are experimenting with new ways to make seats. Lear has developed seats that use webbing instead of foam. That frees space underneath the seats, creating a light, airy interior.

Designers also are rethinking the function of a car's rear seat. Johnson Controls developed a conceptual vehicle interior called Ariston, which divides a luxury car into work space and relaxation space called 'micro-environments.'

In just a few steps, the motorist can convert the car's interior from a mobile office into a lounge.

'The car must be capable of meeting changing life situations,' says Dave Muyres, vice president of design at Johnson Controls in Europe.

Interior designers acknowledge the auto industry has opportunity to explore new territory.

Only money and fear of trying something different stand in the way of a radical revolution in vehicle interiors.

Writers Elaine Catton and Yuzo Yamaguchi contributed to this report.

E-mail writer Michelle Krebs at michkrebs@aol.com

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