HOLLAND, Mich. — On the second floor of a converted Michigan furniture factory, French seat-maker Faurecia is contemplating the future of vehicle interiors.
If Faurecia's ideas are any indication, prepare for a radically different future.
Matthew Benson, who leads strategy for Faurecia Ventures, shows a visitor to a wooden mock-up of a multipurpose vehicle cabin. It is the automotive equivalent of a Lego set, with panels, boxes and consoles that can be reconfigured in endless combinations.
The MPV reveals, among other features, a trick center console that can drop from the usual position to lie flush with the floor. That gives the driver room to rotate his or her seat to face the passengers — as the vehicle is moving.
"The mock-ups sometimes look like ridiculous contraptions because they aren't meant to represent how we would actually engineer a real vehicle," Benson clarifies. "The point is to get feedback about the way consumers experience the feature before we spend time engineering it."
Dubbed xWorks Innovation Center, the studio here allows the supplier to design its cockpits to meet the biggest challenge now facing the world's auto industry: the expected arrival in the next decade of self-driving cars.
With sales last year of $20.7 billion, Faurecia is jostling with Lear Corp., Adient, Magna International Inc. and others for contracts to produce seats and other parts for driverless cars.
Faurecia believes it has an edge. During the recession, the Paris supplier held onto its interiors division at a time when its rivals were selling theirs.
If these cockpits of the future prove to be clean-sheet exercises, controlling the various pieces could be a real advantage. If autonomous vehicles require a reimagining of airbags, consoles, seats, instrument panels and driver controls, someone still needs to have mastery of integrating all of that into a harmonious whole.
That is Faurecia's sales pitch, and the Holland studio is the tip of its spear.
The studio, which opened in 2006, houses a 12-person team that includes engineers, consumer researchers, industrial designers, market researchers and business analysts.
Benson's strategy team is trying to figure out what motorists will want to do in their self-driving cars. Will they watch videos? Work on their laptops? Listen to music? Read a magazine? Snooze?
When the team wants to test a concept, it builds a mock-up and hosts focus groups to critique it, Benson said.