If you can imagine displays with glare control, a built-in voice recorder that reminds you to stop by the market and an information panel that can change data with the push of a button, then you may have an idea of what Johnson Controls Inc. is cooking up for motorists.
A goal of these new projects is to accommodate the aging baby boomer population without overlooking younger generations, said Bill Fluharty, director of advanced design for Johnson Controls.
'We have to make displays and controls much easier to use. That goes not only for the baby boomers but the younger population as well,' Fluharty said. 'Older people will not want to struggle through three layers of controls to find where they are going. Younger drivers will also appreciate interior devices that incorporate hand-eye coordination associated with using computers.'
Lear Corp. also is seeking to gain a toehold in the market for aging motorists. At last month's SAE International Congress and Exposition, Lear gave automotive enthusiasts a peek at what's yet to come with its 'TransG.' This modified Dodge Caravan serves as a prototype of what an older person's vehicle may look like. It includes door handles that are thicker and easier to use, an instrument panel that moves toward the driver into a memory position and modified seats with a swiveling platform and belts that are mounted on both sides for each seat and clasp in the front.
By 2005, 21 percent of Americans, or 66 million people, will be older than 55.
OLD AND YOUNG
Fluharty envisions gadgets that will go into vehicles for the mature crowd. For example, easy-to-read displays with better glare control will be especially important for seniors who wear bifocals. Seats that let older drivers get in and out of vehicles more easily are also on the drawing boards.
But regardless of age, better flexibility and accessibility will be in the forefront of upcoming interior innovations, he said.
For Generation X and Y motorists, Johnson Controls is working on interiors that will blend work and recreational needs, using more fold-down seats and other storage compartments.
The key is flexibility. Fluharty said people's activities change throughout the day, so interiors should change with them.
Johnson Controls recently paired up with Chevrolet to create the AdVenture - a concept minivan made for people with active lifestyles. It comes equipped with a pull-out bike rack, an on-board video entertainment system, storage areas and Recaro seats, which have power lift and recline functions, thigh extension cushions and a temperature comfort system.
'A lot of people are going for more utilitarian vehicles,' said Dave Phillips, a product planner for Johnson Controls. 'As people become more active, they need interiors to be more versatile.'
But while specialized innovations will emerge for aging motorists, consumers shouldn't expect to see entire vehicles tailored solely for seniors or marketed to them. A mix is expected, Fluharty said. Even agile young 20-somethings can appreciate vehicles that are easier to handle with better comfort, he said.
Concerto, a concept interior from Johnson Controls that has an integrated vehicle cockpit, offers drivers of any age better reach for vehicle controls. Dials and controls are placed in the center console, closer to the gear shift and to the driver.
'We don't want to label vehicles,' Fluharty said. 'Who wants to buy an old people's car? Vehicles will have products that will seek to aid the young and the old at the same time.'
Another characteristic of future interiors is the use of more branded products. Fluharty said most consumers like the idea that they can go into a local retail store and buy vehicle accessories. One of Johnson Controls' latest attempts at branded products is the PlaySeat.
The company worked with Lego Group to create this rear-seat child activity center that serves as a writing and drawing desktop and Lego play surface. It includes a storage compartment for Lego blocks and other toys, as well as holders for juice boxes and cups.
Another branded product that is already available in retail stores is HomeLink. This device enables drivers to open garage doors, operate locks and activate home lighting.
Branding 'gives the drivers a sense of control,' Fluharty said. 'They can go somewhere like Sears and buy additional accessories. For example, they may see products that say 'HomeLink compatible.''
Fluharty thinks the innovations of the coming years will be simple, for the most part.
'If it's a family vehicle, you'll see more family things, like built-in booster seats. Or you'll see gadgets like TravelNote (a digital voice recorder) that will help people remember things,' he said. 'These things may seem obvious, but car companies weren't doing this before. Now they are.'
Johnson Controls spokesman David Roznowski said automakers are looking more to Tier 1 suppliers to come up with ideas. 'Before, automakers would basically give us a blueprint,' Roznowski said. 'Now they look to us to make vehicles a better place for consumers to be.'