Mercedes-Benz Vision AVTR

Back in the day when we could stroll into any motor show, it didn’t take long to come across an electrically-driven cube-on-wheels intended to give us a glimpse of the future of transport. Although the pandemic may have put the brakes on autonomous vehicle development – and our appetite to ever share one – a variety of AV interior concepts revealed over the past couple of years indicate the direction in which the industry is heading. Continuing just-auto/AIC’s series of research snapshots, Matthew Beecham highlights some notable innovations.

While SAE Level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles bring many opportunities to suppliers and OEMs in terms of being able to rethink the vehicle cabin, there are also many additional hurdles to overcome. For example, many of today’s well-understood safety parameters are formulated with the knowledge that the drivers and passengers will be forward-facing with three-point safety belts and other occupant restraint systems designed to these boundaries. Rearranging the vehicle cabin, at L4 autonomy and beyond, with a multitude of different seating arrangements introduces far more complexity to passive safety in the cabin and could mean that many of the OEMs’ and suppliers’ visions for future vehicle interiors are never fully realised. 

During an interview with just-auto, Gregory Guillaume, Kia Motors’ chief designer for Europe said: “The advent of autonomous cars is a very interesting time for us designers. The way we use the car and interact with it changes profoundly, and with it, novel design solutions and interior architecture will evolve. This change somehow resets the whole industry to a similar starting point: past achievements and package advantages don’t necessarily provide an upper hand anymore. While autonomous driving certainly will provide a lot of comfort in congested cities and motorways, the reasons that make individual car ownership and driving today so appealing to many buyers will not disappear. I believe that only the designs that will still stir emotions and, at the same time, offer the best usability will prevail.  Perhaps we will see a separation into ‘driver cars’ and more ‘passive’  vehicles that focus on seamless travelling from A to B, but regardless of how it will look like, the interior of an autonomous Kia always needs to stimulate the senses and stir, create emotions.”

If and when cars appear on the road in a highly automated mode, driver monitoring will become yet more significant. Hence the focus of development being on camera-based facial recognition technology.

Connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) have also brought a widespread consumer expectation of a travelling experience offering a high level of comfort in which passengers will be able to work, read from a screen, watch a movie or hold a conversation while in motion, perhaps while seated in a swivelled, side- or rear-facing position. All these can be trigger factors for kinetosis (motion sickness), so providing technological solutions to solve this issue is likely to be crucial for consumer acceptance of CAVs. For its part, Ricardo is developing new technology to minimise the risks of motion sickness. A research team has been investigating the causes and exacerbating factors for kinetosis and is using this to develop algorithms that can be used to improve ride comfort and avoid motion sickness.

Hollywood inspired car interior from Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz revealed its Vision AVTR (Advanced Vehicle Transformation) concept at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this year that was inspired by the 2009 movie Avatar. The luxury automaker joined forces with the team behind the science-fiction film about an alternative humanoid species set in the mid-22nd century to develop the concept car. The hammock seats feature vegan Dinamica leather while the floor is decorated with a wood called Karuun (created from rattan grown in Indonesian). Placing your hand on the central controller enables the vehicle to read your pulse. And as you might expect of this futuristic concept, there is no steering wheel. It’s certainly a bit of fun and attracted a lot of attention at the show. To learn more about the design brief for this concept, we spoke to Hartmut Sinkwitz, head of Mercedes-Benz interior design.

Third living space from Audi

Audi also used the most recent CES to put forward its AI:ME concept vehicle. The automaker says this AV represents the ‘third living space’ alongside homes and workplaces. The idea of the concept is that it learns users’ preferences over a period of time, responding to drivers’ eye movement, voice, gesture and touch. It represents L4 driver autonomy, hence the steering wheel will retract into the dash when driving conditions permit.

An illuminating concept from Kia

Another L4 concept with a high-tech interior has emerged from Kia. The interior of its Futuron EV SUV reflects its autonomous driving nature, with surfaces flowing uninterrupted from the dash and through the door panels. The doors feature the same Star Cloud lighting and scaled Dragon Skin motif found on the exterior, creating a glittering interactive ambient lighting system. The ventilation system is also housed behind Dragon Skin scales, which open and close to allow fresh air to circulate throughout the cabin. One of the most prominent features of the cabin is the ‘graphical user interface’ that flows out of the driver-side door and wraps around the steering wheel in a seamless arc. This merges the instrument cluster with the audio-visual display at the centre of the dash and is linked to the display integrated within the surface of the steering wheel itself.

Supplier innovations

For its part, Faurecia’s Cockpit of the Future reflects the ability of onboard intelligence and integrated design to create a more personalised, versatile and connected experience allowing occupants, both front and rear row, to make the most of their time onboard, as the industry moves toward the holy grail of autonomous driving. The French supplier’s Cockpit Intelligence Platform, an electronics system integrating cameras, sensors and artificial intelligence, developed in partnership with Accenture, manages all the interior functions of the cockpit for an intuitive interaction between occupants and the vehicle.

Yanfeng Technology has been pushing back the technical boundaries of smart interiors for some time. The supplier has expertise in the integration of technologies into all kinds of surfaces, whether plastic, wood and natural fibres, leather, textile or metal decorative surfaces. Yanfeng’s Experience in Motion 2020 (XiM20) concept vehicle embodies its Smart Cabin that features functional surfaces, health and wellness features, and connectivity seamlessly integrated in all interior systems including seating. “Our XiM20 offers information, displays, lighting, and interior ambience and provides flexibility and comfort for the autonomous rideshare passengers of tomorrow,” Han Hendriks, Chief Technology Officer at Yanfeng Technology told just-auto. “Since all solutions are customisable and enable new forms of interaction, it brings surprise and delight in the mobility space.”

The infotainment doesn’t stop there. Hyundai Mobis, parts supplier to the Korean automaker Hyundai, has designed a car interior concept that transforms the windscreen into large display, streaming entertainment to the occupants when in autonomous driving mode. The other concept uses an ‘Indicating Lighting Zone’ to signal when an autonomous vehicle is operating in self-driving mode. The concept uses LED, digital boards, headlamp projection and sound to communicate with nearby pedestrians and vehicles during various driving scenarios.

Lear has developed its Intu Intelligent Seating, which was incorporated into the Rinspeed MicroSNAP autonomous concept vehicle. The Intu seating system features a suite of intelligent technologies that provide enhanced passenger comfort, wellness, entertainment and safety.

Toyota Boshoku says its Interior Space Model supports L4 autonomous driving. The supplier maintains that the space offers comfort to each individual occupant and introduces seat and interior parts technologies that detect the changes in the occupant’s physical status and assesses sleepiness and emotional state. In response, the technology stimulates the five senses with music, light and other devices to create feelings of safety and comfort. The supplier has also developed MOOX, a concept car interior space that supports L5 autonomous driving. A space conceived for the provision of various services, from business to entertainment, with fully flexible seat arrangements and an array of necessary functions. Service value is increased through the stimulation of five senses in response to occupant behaviour and circumstances.

What does the future hold?

While no one can be sure if or when autonomous cars will be mass produced, automotive marketplace Auto Trader has offered its predictions for what cars will look like in 2050. It expects that the 2050 car is a driverless vehicle in the shape of a smooth pod that can change colour with the tap of an app. By then, cars will be fully autonomous and cater to recreational activities including sleeping on the go, board games and even yoga.

Whatever the future might hold, it is clear that driver and passenger experience is changing, with advanced technologies able to boost safety and reduce the load on the driver, as well as open up new possibilities for passengers.