Yanfeng Automotive wants to be a one-stop shop for vehicle interiors.
The Shanghai company has formed in-house business incubators to develop new products such as lighting, "smart" surfaces with capacitive controls and self-cleaning cockpit materials.
To develop these products, Yanfeng has formed a 200-person unit — dubbed Advanced Product Development & Sales — with offices in Shanghai; Silicon Valley; Dusseldorf, Germany; and Holland, Mich.
The group will create products by forming partnerships with companies that specialize in these technologies, said Han Hendriks, the company's chief technical officer.
Three trends will require a clean-sheet approach to the cockpit: self-driving vehicles, car sharing and electric powertrains.
As automakers introduce electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, powertrains will become standardized. That will force automakers to find other ways to differentiate their vehicles.
"We believe the interior will be the No. 1 reason why car buyers will choose a certain brand," Hendriks said Wednesday during the seminars.
If the customer desires, Yanfeng will design a complete interior with instrument panel, consoles and door panels. Although Yanfeng doesn't produce seats, the company works closely with Adient, the world's largest seat maker.
Both companies formerly were owned by Johnson Controls Inc. In the wake of their respective spinoffs, Adient, of suburban Detroit, still holds a 30 percent stake in Yanfeng.
The companies also share a new r&d center in Silicon Valley, another indication of their desire to coordinate.
With annual sales of $8.5 billion, Yanfeng is the world's top supplier of interior components. But interior trim is an industry with thin margins, so Yanfeng hopes to fix that by adding technology to interior components.
Self-driving cars and ride sharing will give them an opportunity. Companies such as Uber and Lyft will want more spacious rear seats with a host of infotainment features for passengers.
And self-driving vehicle interiors must accommodate a driver who might watch a video, read a book, chat with passengers or take a nap.
All this will require new climate control systems, new airbags, new sound systems and new seats. Safety is especially important, because traditional dashboard-mounted airbags won't protect front passengers who have rotated their seats toward the back.
For safety purposes, "we need to know where each occupant is at all times," Hendriks said. "We will need cameras for real-time 3-D mapping of the cabin, to figure out which airbags should go off."
Chinese automakers and EV startups are likely customers because they don't have large in-house design teams, Hendriks said.