Dot-com enthusiasts envision a future in which cars will become data centers for a driver who absorbs a barrage of information from the wired world. Car designers certainly hope not. When Chris Bangle, chief designer for BMW AG, envisions the interior of a future car, he thinks of ways to connect the driver to the driving while keeping passengers comfortable. Ideally, the gauges, layout and interior should help the driver harmonize with the road in the same way a motorcyclist anticipates the next curve.
That is not possible if the driver also is an e-mail clerk, navigation plotter and telephone receptionist. Bangle deplores that idea. 'It would be very disappointing if we all ended up driving little offices around,' he said. But if Internet access is 'the cupholder of the year 2005, the future gotta-have-it,' as Bangle terms it, then interior designers will have to find a way to make it fit.
Packing more features into cars will require 'a different man-machine interface than we've had in the past,' Bangle said. 'We're becoming a lot of man-machine interface designers now.'
Technology's push has interior designers pressed for space inside the car. Headliners, once simple layers of fabric-covered wood or plastic, now incorporate airbags, instrumentation, storage, video screens and grab-handles. Steering wheels that once carried just a horn button now house airbag modules and buttons for the sound system and cruise control. Armrests carry window, mirror and other electronic controls. Even rear-view mirrors are encrusted with features, ranging from ultra-bright interior lighting to a potential noise suppression system that filters background noise out of cell phone calls.
Probably no space is more hotly contested than the center stack, the area between the center top of the instrument panel and the floor.
'You've got to put in heating, ventilation and air conditioning,' notes Carl Olsen, an automotive design professor at Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. 'You've got to put in audio equipment, and now there's onboard navigation and whatever else, all fighting for a position that's ergonomically correct.'
Designers face an enormous challenge. Car interiors generally get complete redesigns every five years or so. Technology changes much more rapidly.
Today's navigation and Internet communications systems are certain to be outstripped by technological changes every 18 months. So a designer putting in a navigation screen faces a challenge: Will the technology still be valid and justify prominent placement when the car is made?
Old technology can quickly make an interior seem obsolete. Examples include built-in eight-track tape players and the early digital light-emitting diode speedometers used in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Originally intended to show technology leadership, they quickly lost appeal.
While engineers and suppliers promote the future car as a container of new features and conveniences, designers are reluctant to include technology for technology's sake.
'The electronics guys have their own problems to solve. As a designer, what you try to do is make it so fundamentally correct that no matter how many ways you have to update it, it's always right,' said Bangle of high-tech systems.
Tom Slanec, DaimlerChrysler senior design manager for interior and exterior, says designers are trying to understand the increasing complexity of driving. 'Obviously, telematics are big features that are coming down the road. As people are more connected at home, they want to be more connected in their cars. It's becoming more complex,' Slanec said.
So designers are trying to simplify the way technology is introduced to the driver. In DaimlerChrysler's case, displays to show different levels of information that can be reconfigured may be one option. 'Rather than having a navigational screen right in the center of the car, you have a turn-by-turn arrow right in the cluster. That's the kind of interface that would probably be the most easily and safely used by a driver,' Slanec said.
One option would let drivers use a more complex, map-like navigation display, but only if the vehicle is parked, or if a passenger is operating the display. Doubling functions that use important space inside the car is one solution.
Olsen cites a student project that mounted a compact disc player back-to-back with a navigation system. Drivers could swivel the entire assembly depending on which function they wanted to use. The concept became a centerpiece for the student's entire interior design.
'Today, you don't have to get an instrument binnacle that looks like the ones where all the wires and cables used to come out of the back of the speedo and the tachometer. They're gone. You can slim all this stuff right down, which has a thematic effect on what you do with the aesthetic design,' Olsen said.
The flexibility of high-tech displays also is leading to new forms and functions. DaimlerChrysler's E-SX3 concept car, shown in February at the Geneva auto show, featured a reconfigurable display in the center of the instrument panel. 'All of the controls were mounted on the forward edge of the center console. At your fingertips were control knobs, so you did not need to reach out of your seat,' Slanec said. 'There is a quick learning curve. You don't have to take the owner's manual out and pretend you're studying for a final exam.'
But drivers may need to reinterpret the function of some controls. Bangle, at BMW, said cars are too complex to use an individual button for each separate task. Instead, designers are trying to put fewer controls in the car but have each switch handle more tasks. Volkswagen's Concept D luxury concept car uses 10 switches to control 150 different functions.
'We have to incorporate a lot of features and displays and controls,' said Rudiger Folten, who oversees VW design strategy and communication in Wolfsburg, Germany. 'We have to choose which kinds of controls are important, easy to find, easy to control and which to put on a second or third level.'
Like the AM/FM selector button on a radio, each control in a future car will do different things. 'I think the whole thing should be completely subconscious,' Folten said. 'You should not have to wander around in the interior' to find the right switch, Bangle said. That means future controls must be robust and follow simple, natural human hand abilities.
'Anybody can take a glass and without looking at it, if asked to move it backward or forward, or side to side, can do it,' Bangle said.
But change that to a vertical surface such as a flat touch screen, and most people lose focus. It also is easy for drivers to become confused when they try to remember a long list of voice commands.
'The future has definitely got to be a type of full-body experience of car driving that makes it enjoyable. We shouldn't be overloading any one (sensory) channel. I have a little problem with voice activation. It's very easy to overload that channel, and pretty soon, you don't have a handle on it,' Bangle said.
Designers also are hard at work at separating the driver's environment from the passenger's. Sjord Dijkstra, DaimlerChrysler technical spokesman, said the company is trying to isolate audio sources in the vehicle. DaimlerChrysler's Maxicab concept features what the company calls its 'cone of sound.'
'We can use sound very much like light, and shine it like a spotlight to one person,' Dijkstra said. 'The person in the right back seat can listen to Meat Loaf, the second (person) to a Pokemon movie, and the one in front to classical music.'
The concept is one example of the trend to give more attention to passenger needs. Other examples are individual climate controls, elevated rear seats that give occupants a better view and rear-seat entertainment options, including drop-down video screens in the headliner.
Those mini-environments will be enhanced by advances in seats that allow thinner, lighter structures that carry heating and cooling functions. Occupants eventually may be cooled by conduction, or physical contact, rather than exclusively by the convection of air currents from climate control systems. That could eliminate some ductwork, freeing space in instrument panels, floor modules and headliners.
Some exterior design changes could affect the interior, too. One is DaimlerChrysler's periscope rear-view mirror, which replaces side-mount mirrors with small lenses providing a display on the instrument panel. The system gives the driver a view of traffic while cutting wind noise and external drag. Because wind noise is reduced, there is less need for sound insulation in the door assembly, which would free up space.
Another exterior feature that affects the interior is fingerprint-recognition access, which both Chrysler and BMW have shown on concept cars. Slanec said not needing to use a key to enter or start the car creates a connection between driver and vehicle.
KEEPING WHAT WORKS
Designers agree that large portions of the car are so established they are unlikely to change. Pedal controls for the accelerator, brake and clutch; the steering wheel; and the instrument cluster are unlikely to disappear, even if such devices as traction and stability controls take over more of the driver's functions.
'We at Volkswagen will not change what the central instruments would be: the steering wheel, the instruments and the importance of two or three central, round instruments. This is what is the definition of the control of a car,' said Folten.
And BMW's Bangle said that company's design institutions will not go away. 'BMW has a few dogmas that we like to follow in instrumentation in terms of placement of graphics, needles, et cetera.' Similarly, BMW will always have orange-lit instruments because it believes they are the optimium design for night driving, he said.
Some design conventions will stay because they are successful in orienting drivers. Designers explain that people are remarkably good at detecting subtle lines and definitions.
'People notice,' says Olsen, at Center for Creative Studies. 'They might not be able to tell you why they like something, but if it's right, they know it's right. If it's wrong, they know it's wrong.'
That is probably the one aspect of future vehicle design that will not change.
You can e-mail free-lance writer Tim Moran at [email protected]