Until recently, most cars were designed from the outside-in, but increasingly, designers say the whole car is being planned around the interior.  So what do consumers want from their next car interior? 

Appearance is everything

An auto executive told us how consumers are quick to notice inferior quality instrument panels. “They want better materials, grain and more padding.  They have got nice things in their homes and expect to see that in their cars.  The difference between European and Asian consumer preferences is particularly marked. People take cues on what they perceive as good and bad based on their cultural background and what they value themselves.” 

There are also marked differences between European and North American consumers’ preferences with regard to vehicle interiors.  An auto executive told us: “The first one is that the North American market is more open to ‘surprise and delight feature’ such as small storage somewhere or hooks attached to the headrest to hang your coat.  Americans are very attracted by that.  The second difference is the way in which you execute the feature.  For example, European consumers are used to fully powered front seats whereas in North America they are keen on partially powered seats such as the height adjuster and nothing else.  Another example is the level of seat comfort itself.  In North America they prefer soft seats whereas in Europe the emphasis is on harder seats with tight trim. Although within Europe historically it is true that French seats were typically softer than German seats, the difference today is less marked as French OEMs increasingly targeting the German vehicle market.”

Another auto executive emphasised the importance of grain in vehicle interior coverings.  He said:  “The grain can play a key element in the perception of the craftsmanship because incorrect selection of the grain can cause a perception that it is too plastic on the interior.  Even leather can look plastic depending on the grain applied to it.”

In terms of fabrics used in cars, an executive from Magna Seating told us:”We are seeing a return to more luxurious materials and trending away from inexpensive alternatives.  We are adding additional top finishes to materials that are more costly, adding greater value.  We are increasing the use of leathers as well, where vinyls would have been the norm.” 

Consumers have preferences not just for better quality materials but fresh colours, too.  An auto executive told us:  “There is a trend toward more yellows and blues but not green. We are also starting to see more sporty but traditional accents in cars, for instance reds with some leather.  Designers are using colour palettes to target different consumer segments.”

Green interiors

While a green coloured interior is the least favoured by consumers, materials produced using environmentally-resources are welcome.

An executive from Magna Seating told us:”We are seeing an investigative trend in natural materials, but at this point they cannot stand up to the rigorous performance requirements of the automotive markets such as mildew resistance, light fastness and abrasion resistance.  Natural materials have limited application although their use in polyurethane foam is growing.  For seat padding, in addition to producing polyurethane foam from renewable resources, Magna is pioneering the use of recycled polyol. We have launched this recycled foam product on a 2011 production program in which the cushion and back pads are made from 5% recycled PU foam.  This represents a first step toward true ‘closed-loop’ sustainability, in which significant reductions of landfill waste will be realized. For example the current Ford Escape Hybrid utilizes fibres made from 100% post industrial waste.”

Trendy fabrics 

Aside from green materials, a great deal of work is focused on different seat fabrics, creating more breathable or more waterproof surfaces, and even adding built-in fragrances designed to increase feelings of well-being.  

In terms of the appearance of vehicle seating, it would seem that these days trendy fabric for a seat insert in certain vehicles is more acceptable than it was, say, a few years ago. However, while trendy fabric has its place on some vehicles, it doesn’t suit all.  

“We are seeing trends to move to more colour contrast materials to differentiate interior design,” said an auto executive. “Today seats are going to more two-tone with accent colour design sews. Also the trend is moving to more exotic stitching that moves away from the standard deck and French seams that have been used in the industry for years. Also softer hand materials are more in demand than ever. OEMs ultimately are responsible for selection and styling of fabrics. History has shown that any time they stray too far from the mainstream with a colour or pattern, it can have a detrimental effect on resale values, because these are time sensitive trends.” 

Flexibility

Though modern car seats are more comfortable and safer than ever before, flexibility, comfort and safety continue to be the main drivers of this business.

As OEMs demand greater differentiation in their seat designs, customers want more and more luxury and added value.  An auto executive told us:   “[Consumers] are looking for reconfigurabilty which basically gives them a choice of adapting their vehicle interior to their immediate need.  As they make changes from cargo to people hauling, they need to do that quickly without the hassle of removing the seats from the vehicle.”

Connectivity

While most of us like to feel comfortable while on the road, some also want to stay connected. Continental and Nokia are working together on a new concept that will enable drivers and passengers to seamlessly connect, display and control phone applications via an in-vehicle dash display. The partners say its so-called Terminal Mode technology aims to “improve the usability of services such as telephony, navigation, social networking and music in an automotive environment while keeping drivers focused on the primary driving task.” 

While some see the automotive industry on the threshold of a connectivity explosion, concerns over distracting the driver too much continue to mount. According to data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver distraction could present a serious and potentially deadly danger. In 2008, 5,870 people lost their lives and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in police-reported crashes in which at least one form of driver distraction was reported on the police crash report. Distracted driving comes in various forms, such as cell phone use, texting while driving, eating, drinking, talking with passengers, as well as using in-vehicle technologies and portable electronic devices. 

Although such connectivity innovations could mark the start of some interesting things to come, how could it affect the design of cockpits?  For some time, we’ve seen cockpit designers working on ways in which to display more information yet make the dash appear less complex.  As we see it, the general approach is to ensure that only the most essential information is displayed while remaining features are available in the background or brought up at will.  But the increasing fitment of sophisticated mobile multimedia systems, as well as safety and security items suggest that this part of the interior is still in its infancy in terms of development.  How will that evolve?  “I see a real mixed bag in the market place,” an auto executive told us. “You do see some designs taking a true focus on simplicity, good ergonomics in terms of reach, visual attention to more use of universal symbols and fewer buttons.  And yet I also see some other vehicle manufacturers come out with a great deal of features with loads of buttons, lights and dials that takes a little bit of time to get used to. I see the whole spectrum of that.  But in general, I see more attention to ergonomics and less driver distraction. And certainly the mobile multimedia devices mean there is more chance of clutter.  That is a design challenge for people like us.  We have to transform the fit and functionality of those parts in a fashion so that it doesn’t look like clutter but an integrated part of design.”

Acoustical concerns

Vehicle acoustics used to mean packing as much insulation as possible into a door panel to make the interior quiet.  But nowadays there are far more sophisticated routes to dampening noise. 

An executive from Magna Seating told us:”Interior quietness is crucial and definitely affects perceived quality.  Our objective is zero BSRs, a tough target when the acoustic properties of the vehicle continue to eliminate exterior noise reduction; all the sounds produced internally are now more apparent.  We are working on all material interface areas to eliminate any undesirable sounds.   When a customer sits into his/her seat, they are not expecting their seat to talk back.  Materials engineering plays a key role in preventing this from happening.”

Tomorrow’s interiors

The following chapters (yet to be published) of this briefing illustrate just some of the ways in which interior designers are continually reinventing interiors to appeal to folk of all shapes, sizes, ages and cultures.  Not only is there the problem of defining comfort levels, but there are also cosmetic questions of colour, trim, covering materials used, durability, use of child seats, headrests and overall seating arrangement.  Above all, a vehicle’s interior is a critical element in the overall design process and regarded by the carmaker as one area where the individuality of the car can be demonstrated. 

As manufacturers attempt to add more features and create more interior space in the small car segment, designers and material suppliers are being urged to come up with new ideas, such as slimline seats.  While thinner seats will add crucial space inside smaller cars, the ability to transform the cabin to suit different needs remains topical in the sport utility and minivans segments.  While interior trim is by no means a high-technology product, the technical boundaries are being pushed back to improve appearance, save weight, enhance safety, simplify installation and above all cut cost.