Cabin design will orchestrate the consumer experience for autonomous vehicles, Ford’s Ernst Reim tells Paul Myles.

With the advance of technology and autonomous driving, the focus on a car’s cabin has never been more highly defined and an interior designer’s role never more important.

Heading up a long list of imperatives for these designers is the need to ensure consumers enjoy a stress-free relationship with these radically different vehicles, says Ernst Reim, chief interiors designer with Ford of Europe.

Speaking exclusively to TU-Automotive at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, Reim said getting the human machine interface (HMI) right is vital in winning over the consumer’s trust. He explained: “While there is plenty of new technology still to come, it’s important that the user is not overly-stressed by this. We are clearly on the way to go from semi-autonomous driving to fully autonomous driving and the customer, at the moment, still doesn’t trust the technology that much. However, I think our technologies will convince the customer, in a short period of time, that it is more safe especially when driving in the city environment.”

Reim stressed the importance of designers putting themselves in the passenger seat of the consumer to understand how to create an environment that meets all their changing needs. “For long distance trips, autonomous allows greater relaxation when you’re not in the mood to driver yourself,” Reim said. “Of course, there is a lot of driver aid technology in the cabin already but it’s focused on the driver as someone who wants to drive and be involved and this will always be the case. Yet, there are some consumers that don’t care about the driving experience and just want to get from A-to-B – these will be the ones who will be happy to give up the steering wheel and be driven.”

Reim said the real challenge for designers will occur in the technology twilight zone between partial and full autonomous vehicle interiors. He said: “So, from a car interior designer’s point of view, the question is: do you have both functionalities in the car or, in a little bit of time, we say from now onwards we’ll have full autonomous driving without any steering wheel?

Driverless gondolas

“Because the second scenario will be the day when people use the car like a gondola. A gondola which is moving you from A-to-B and at the end of the day I will enter the car with my mobile device and with the destination entered, the car will automatically pick you up at your front door, already warmed up with your favourite music loaded or whatever set-up you have at home that you want to bring into the car.”

Reim envisages the driverless car as a powerful stress reliever for consumers who will come to view them as extensions of their home environment. He explained: “It will be more like a lounge scenario but able to move you from destination to destination. No longer will you have to think about any safety aspects because all of that is controlled by the car itself. It’s already started so it’s just a question of when the legislators will allow it to happen. We see this arriving from a normal user’s point of view by 2026 or so.”

Interior designers will also be able to free themselves from many of the current restraints in today’s vehicles where windows have just one function – to look through. Reim suggested: “In this gondola scenario the car would not even need windows as we know them today. At the end of the day, we have to find out what the customer’s needs are for this full autonomous vehicle. For example, one customer would lay back and try to catch up on sleep, so you have to be able to darken the cabin enough to allow this and the windows can change to completely black-out. This would use technology where the scene in the windows can change from blue skies or to screen a movie displayed anywhere the customer wants whether that’s in the windows or on the roof.

“Alternatively, some would want to work in the car so there’s flexibility with workspace and to connect all the devices you need to do your work. So this type of car will have to be able to cope with every possible customer need. An example would be with short distance trips, you’re unlikely to start work but would like some entertainment while for long distance trips of some hours, comfort will be a major importance offering either cinema mode or work mode.”

Another major area of concern for designers is building in capacity for cabin occupants to interact with each other and providing them with an enhanced experience. “This involves communication with other passengers in the car,” explained Reim. “If, by law, it’s mandated that everyone has to sit in the driving direction, possibly because of safety issues, you still want to talk to the passengers behind you. It’s important to get these sort of communication problems covered by the design of the interior. If, for example, you can have passengers facing each other, this offers up the possibilities of entertainment with games in the space between them as the passengers become players.

“So, there are almost endless story you can deliver to the consumer, from home quality entertainment up to conference style work environments in a totally safe and secure zone from prying eyes outside the car.”

Autonomous Vehicle & ADAS Japan 2017

15 May 2017 - 16 May 2017, TOKYO, JAPAN

Autonomous Vehicle & ADAS Japan 2017 is an information and networking platform that brings together key stakeholders in the ADAS and autonomous value chain to discuss the biggest challenges, understand how the technology is evolving, and establish partnerships to enable the next phase of driving safety and autonomy.