In a long and detailed interview, Matthew Beecham talked with five vehicle interior experts from Johnson Controls Inc (JCI) about what consumers of all ages look for in seating, fabrics, materials and colour and how the company is responding to such diversity.

What has your consumer research told you about seating requirements and preferences?

Yaniv Oren, Director Product and Business Development, Seating, JCI:  “Both proactively and in response to customer requests, Johnson Controls applies insights gleaned from in-house benchmarking as well as consumer and market research to all its product developments. The company also conducts important studies addressing topics such as: Which product solution is optimal for the current market?  Which desires and visions do drivers have today?  In the course of extensive market and consumer research, Johnson Controls poses these and similar questions both before and during the development of every product. This is how the company found out that consumers are increasingly focusing on flexible seat solutions, comfort and safety. The company incorporates these findings into its new concepts and products, which support at the same time the individual customer brand values.

Johnson Controls responds to customers’ preference for flexible seating concepts with a whole series of solutions. Moreover, the company has developed a new release mechanism combining electronic and mechanical adjustment.  Findings from studies on the human-machine interface also played a role here.

Likewise in response to consumer desires, Johnson Controls has continued to work on advances in automotive comfort. Comfort in seats means here not only the integration of active and passive climate systems, but also seat adjustments that are easy to understand and use. EcoClimate, for example, is a passive climate system and a unique combination of thermal comfort and humidity control concept. It is based on an innovative inner seat material composition, resulting in higher heat and moisture absorption compared with a conventional seat. Air can circulate naturally, leading to a sensation of relief and freshness for the occupant.

Johnson Controls initiated EcoClimate consumer research in the hot climate of Seville, Spain. The test respondents first drove in an air-conditioned small segment car with a conventional seat, and then the same model with EcoClimate, without being informed of the seat switch. The test showed that the respondents did perceive the difference and definitely preferred the EcoClimate seat. Temperature plays an important role in consumer perception of comfort. The respondents appreciated the unique combination of comfort and humidity control. This development also has an impact on consumers’ impression of quality and safety.

The Johnson Controls EcoClimate seat contains breathable materials that cause moisture and heat to be transferred from the driver into the seat’s interior and then released again into the surrounding air, keeping drivers cool while driving in the warm summer heat.
Source: Johnson Controls.

Safety is also a topic of increasing interest to consumers, making it one of today’s key selling points. Consumers and drivers find it more important than ever that safety requirements are met, especially the requirements rated by consumer organizations, such as EuroNCAP Johnson Controls supports this trend with a series of developments, including Active Head Restraints and the Active Anti-Submarining Ramp. Johnson Controls’ Active Head Restraint, for example, protects the occupants of a vehicle involved in a rear impact from suffering the rapid forwards and backwards movement that often results in ‘whiplash’ injuries. The safety module is available in two different versions: body-driven, which is activated by a body movement, or crash signal activated, with the pre-tensed system being unlocked either electromechanically or pyrotechnically.

Another safety product, the Active Anti-Submarining Ramp, is integrated into the seat pan and presents itself in the event of a front-end collision. This reduces the forward movement of the pelvis and thus the seat belt forces that are applied in a collision. Key considerations in developing this system were to minimize weight and cost while maximizing function and enabling improved comfort.”

Are there any differences between North American and European consumer tastes?

Silke Strauch, Consumer Research Manager, Britta Leer Industrial Design, Designer Colour & Materials, JCI:  “Many vehicle concepts today fulfill international standards and are designed for global markets. Nevertheless, despite this global orientation, the company is able to offer variations to suit local taste since it has consumer data from both North America and Europe at its disposal. Generally, European automakers have always used more interior colour than their American cousins.”
How does it differ between age groups? 

Silke Strauch, Consumer Research Manager, JCI:   “Expectations and demands on an automotive interior vary with the age and lifestyle of car buyers. One example of this is the MPV [Multi Purpose Vehicle] segment in which interior variability has increased noticeably in comparison with conventional vehicle concepts, in particular for parents between 30 and 45 years of age. This target group is especially interested in features such as flexible seating concepts that can be easily varied and adjusted to suit individual needs. This shows once again how research into the requirements of various age and target groups is indispensable for successful product development, which is why Johnson Controls devotes so much energy to consumer studies. For example, Johnson Controls carried out a consumer study with potential future first-car buyers.  This so-called ‘New Youth’ generation, aged between 15 and 20 years today and planning to buy their first new car in 10 to 15 years, grew up with modern technologies such as Internet, computers, mobile phones and MP3 players. They expect to find these technologies reflected in their future car. Consumer research thus generates valuable insights for the company to apply to the development of products for the vehicle generation of tomorrow and beyond.”

How is Johnson Controls responding to increasing diversity requirements?

Yaniv Oren, Director Product and Business Development, Seating, JCI:  “Johnson Controls is responding to the increasing diversity trend by offering various innovative rear seat flexibility solutions with multi-adjustment possibilities, with seats disappearing into the vehicle floor. Numerous concepts from Johnson Controls can be found in today’s and future cars. These seats are easy to operate by the consumer and allow the automaker to differentiate his specific system from others since they are always individually tailored to the automaker’s very own brand signature. Examples of Johnson Controls products successfully in operation in all segments are, for example, the flexible seating system in the Opel Zafira and Meriva, Renault Modus, Ford C-Max and the third row for the VW Touran.

In addition, another answer to increasing diversity requirements is the modular structures philosophy. In order to develop a first seating concept on the basis of automaker requirements in a rapid and cost-effective manner, engineers at Johnson Controls increasingly use modular structures. During the last five years in Europe, the company has developed and launched over 50 complete seating programs for various automakers. Hence, a significant amount of expertise could be accumulated for various seating structures, which was incorporated into the standardized building blocks. Despite relying on standardised modular structures, one advantage is that the seat can be flexibly adapted to the automaker’s individual requirements concerning design, comfort aspects and production process.”

In terms of seat colours and materials, what can we expect in tomorrow's car?  Can we expect lighter tones, perhaps more use of accent colour and 'optimistic' yellows, greens and blues? 

Britta Leer Industrial Design, Designer Colour & Materials, JCI:  “In Europe, the trend is toward an unusual co-existence of cool and warm gray/beige shades which create a touch of modern excitement. Strong accent colours such as purple and plum inject force and energy and can, in combination with rust and dark brown, introduce a strong ethnic feel. These are then balanced by lavenders and violets, which have a sweet, nostalgic, even romantic appeal. Light yellow, honey-yellow and orange are stimulating, energetic and cheerful, while turquoise, red and green are used to create a fresh young atmosphere. Subtle pastel shades combined with bright water-blue hues introduce a feeling like a summer breeze.

In North America, the latest trend towards soft pale colours creates the perception of spaciousness. A tranquil ambience can be created using soft, creamy au-lait whites or pale fresh grays that have a tint of blue, yellow or wasabi green hues, or using shades of beige and mushroom. Icy cool blues in contrast create a clean, powdery and fresh atmosphere.

A dominant colour trend in Asia (Japan) both in terms of interior design and the vehicle interior is the combination of black, red and white.”

Is leather making a comeback in some segments and markets?

Britta Leer Industrial Design, Designer Colour & Materials, JCI:  “Leather and leather-look fabrics have always been classical materials used in cars and they are still very much a status symbol reflecting luxury and hence always favoured by customers. The main properties of leather that contribute to its luxurious impression are its durability, tactile feel and smell. Each of these properties can be adjusted to offer a fantastic range of unique products. As it is a natural product, there are no issues with leaching and emission of harmful substances such as plasticizers and hydrocarbons. Finally, virtually any colour is possible, but leather is always easy to clean regardless. There is, however, a new trend towards using leather in different ways. The focus is on texture and finish, featuring details such as stitching, cut-outs, embossing, laser etching and mixing of leathers. Alternatives that have emerged in the market in recent years are split leather and alcantara fabrics. Nevertheless, the demand for leather will always increase in the future.”

As consumers want more flexibility from their vehicles, what challenges does that bring? 

Silke Strauch, Consumer Research Manager, JCI:  “The challenge includes features like stowing rear seats fold-flat, or retracting them into the vehicle floor in order to allow for increased storage space. Today, a customer expects to be able to transform the car from a 7-seater into a 2-seater with little effort. Seat adjustment must be possible not only horizontally, but also in height and sidewards.”

Do you see fold-flat seats eclipsing demand for removable seats? 

Yaniv Oren, Director Product and Business Development, Seating, JCI:  “Yes, absolutely. First of all, fold-flat seats always imply a higher comfort aspect for the consumer than seats that need to be removed from the interior in order to have more space in the car. Apart from the weight factor, people also need to think about where to stow the seat(s) after removing them. Therefore, fold-flat seats retracted into the vehicle floor are definitely an attractive option for consumers.”

Does this increase demand for slimline seats and other new designs?

Yaniv Oren, Director Product and Business Development, Seating, JCI:  “Since trends as well as consumers’ and automakers’ requirements are always subject to change, Johnson Controls is constantly working on new designs and seating concepts in order to find enhanced solutions which exceed the requirements of consumers and automakers alike. Johnson Controls has recently developed a rear seat solution enhancing third-row comfort by providing lateral support called Open Seating.

Open Seating offers the comfort and styling of industry-leading front-row seats for rear compartments of vehicles. When stowed away, it has a much smaller footprint, enhancing a vehicle’s cargo capacity. This new seating system features side bolsters that provide comfort similar to the front row when the seat is deployed, and fold completely flat when it is stowed.

Open Seating deploys or stows away with ease in one fluid motion to create a true zero-degree, fold-flat load floor, freeing up maximum cargo capacity. The product is available for integration into 2007 model-year vehicles. The technology delivers a seat that is comfortable, thin and optically appealing. In the past, it has been difficult to deliver a true, fold-flat seat without compromising on comfort and design. Open Seating now makes this possible. It provides an improved distribution of back pressure for enhanced comfort, as well as a level of lateral support comparable to front-row bucket seats. The technology can be applied to all vehicle segments, and all rows with folding seat backs. It also enables a vehicle’s styling theme and trim outline to be carried from the front row to the second- and third-row areas.

The Open Seating concept is unique for a folding or stowable seat and a first for the industry. Consumers want more versatility and functionality from the rear areas of their vehicle cabins, and this product provides such traits in a very innovative way. Consumers no longer need to remove third-row seats to gain additional cargo capacity. Instead of removing the seats, they can be folded flat. In addition, Open Seating is designed to be user-friendly, since it can be operated easily from either a vehicle’s second-row or tailgate areas.”

Is there a movement toward a type of ‘alternative luxury’, i.e. greater use of inexpensive but upscale-looking materials?

Britta Leer Industrial Design, Designer Colour & Materials, JCI:  “Automakers are always looking for inexpensive but upscale-looking materials, but the upscale look should suit the segment of the car (the quality of the materials must be higher in a upper medium segment car, for example, than in a small segment vehicle).

Recyclability of interior parts is receiving greater attention by European and North American OEMs.  How are you responding to that? 

Lars Claren New Product Development Interiors, Product Manager Material & Environment, JCI: “Johnson Controls is able to provide product solutions for the ELV [end of life] directives which have become law in Europe. All car manufacturers must be able to reach the quotas requested by law for vehicle disposal. The company works with its customers to provide tailored solutions for all products.

But Johnson Controls does not only meet legal and customer specifications, but is also a valued partner to automakers in areas such as recycling of products and production waste, waste management and resource conservation.

Johnson Controls’ European plants are ISO certified and have the requisite professional personnel on hand to ensure compliance. The company is currently working on concepts for recycling production waste. One concept that was developed for a well-known automaker is soon to go into series production.”

Stuffing cars with natural materials is another talking point.  Are you seeing the use of natural materials as another trend in mass produced interiors? 

Vassilios Maniatopoulos, Product Manager, JCI:  “Yes, natural fiber materials will be in use as carriers for instrument panels and door panels. The main reasons for this are the very good mechanical properties, lightness and permeability supporting the foil covering process. Other than that, these materials used as carriers and covered in a second step are cost-effective compared to covered plastic carriers.”

In terms of the material used to cover the instrument panel, what trends are you seeing there.  Are you seeing a clear move away from PVC toward thermoplastic olefin (TPO)? 

Vassilios Maniatopoulos, Product Manager, JCI:  “There is a clear trend away from PVC, but it will take time since PVC slush is still the most cost-effective cast skin solution today. Mainly PU material applied using various technologies will be the solution. One of the most effective solutions is the PU RIM technology. TPU is not cost-competitive. TPO is only possible as a foil, not as a cast skin and is not the preferred solution for instrument panels.”

What is driving that?  Is it more recyclable, lighter, cheaper, keeps its colour for longer?  

Vassilios Maniatopoulos, Product Manager, JCI:  “Driving this development are recyclability, investments, appearance, safety legislation (‘airborne particulate matter’), airbag solutions, controlled skin thickness.”

Expert Analysis

Global market review of automotive interiors – forecasts to 2011

In this third edition report, just-auto extends the analysis to provide market value forecasts by product segment for seat systems, door panels, flooring and acoustics systems, instrument panels and headliners in Western Europe, North America and Japan, from 2001 through 2011.

Containing exclusive interviews from most of the leading OEM suppliers in interiors, this edition offers a real perspective of what the major suppliers are currently working on, and helps outline the product developments for the near future. These perspectives are a must for OEMs, and suppliers alike.

To find out more about this report, download your sample or to order your copy, please follow this link.