News

To Screen or Not to Screen: The Tricky Business of Designing Driverless Car Interiors

Self-driving vehicles occupy that “third space” between home and work or play

Self-driving vehicles occupy that “third space” between home and work or play

When a 12-year-old is more interested in his electronic toy than the new McLaren unveiled behind him, it is telling. That is what happened to David Muyres of Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, who thought his son would catch the car bug by showing him a hot new exotic car and the excitement of the people ogling it.

The reality is designers and carmakers need to be paying attention to what 12-year-olds are doing now because they will be the target consumers when fully autonomous vehicles are the norm in 2030.

“If you don’t pay attention to how people spend their money, you’re going to design the wrong products,” Muyres, Yangfeng’s executive director of research and advanced development, said in a panel discussion at the WardsAuto Interior Conference in Detroit.

In today’s world, where everyone is developing autonomous vehicles, there is a Wild West mentality when it comes to what driverless cars will look like on the inside. The hot term is “third space,” referring to time spent ferrying between home and work or play.

Most vehicles are only Level 1 or 2 on the autonomous vehicle scale, meaning there are assistance systems but the driver is in control. The consensus is that by 2020, we’ll see Level 4, where the human is expendable and the car is making decisions such as changing lanes, speeding up, or braking in a controlled environment. Level 5, where the car does all the driving and there is no steering wheel or pedals, will be in play by 2030. There will even be a Level 6, Muyres said, where the vehicle drives itself with no one inside at all.

Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion concept cabin
Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion concept cabin

“AVs are no longer disruptive. They are the new normal,” Carter Cannon, manager of functional integration for the IAC Group, said. And they are an easy transition given that driver attention is an astonishingly low 17 percent, the same as washing dishes, he said.

There are a lot of ideas of what these self-driving vehicles will look like. With full automation potentially a decade away, they still need conventional forward-facing seats, steering wheels, pedals, and windshields for now. But the number and placement of screens could grow like cupholders have—one for every passenger and position.

Tesla introduced the monster screen up front. The Nissan IDS concept transforms the entire instrument panel into a screen that extends the width of the car. The Jeep Yunta concept for China is overflowing with screens, and eager suppliers keep showing more and bigger versions to be incorporated into future vehicles.

Nissan IDS Concept dashboard

It is a touchy subject for Ralph Gilles, head of global design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The challenge is integrating technology while honoring tradition and emotional design, celebrating advances without letting them take over the interior, and controlling big screens that jut up from the dash and are an affront.

He is not alone. He sees a bit of blowback from what he calls “screenitis.” The new Audi TT contains all its screens and info to the gauge area in front of the steering wheel—the rest of the dash and console are refreshingly simple and devoid of anything resembling tech or connectivity. The Lexus LF production car improved the screen integration from the concept.

“Is this the start of a return to simplicity?” Gilles asks. But he recognizes he is up against millennials, many of whom don’t want to own a vehicle.

Millennials are purpose-oriented, want to use their time efficiently, and don’t care about driving or a particular car brand, said Stefan Weissert, director of the Car Multimedia Division of Bosch in North America. They will be loyal to the automaker that gives them an experience, whether it is a mobile office or a quiet place to rest between airport and hotel.

Chrysler used a team of millennials to design the Portal minivan concept shown in January (pictured in main image). The doors are portals to a cavernous interior with unlimited potential. Gilles described it as a “Swiss army knife for your life.”

Chrysler Portal concept interior