Global megatrends such as connectivity, autonomous driving, shared mobility and electrification (CASE) are changing the face of the auto industry. With people set to spend less time driving, cars will instead become living spaces. The resulting changes to vehicle interior design will be the most profound in decades. The pandemic also highlights just how important vehicle hygiene is for the entire mobility industry. Continuing our series of tier one component supplier interviews, we caught up with Han Hendriks, Chief Technology Officer for Yanfeng Technology to get his vision of the shape of things to come.

As the automotive industry shifts toward higher levels of driver autonomy, what are the opportunities for Yanfeng?

We see great opportunities for our company and our business. To make our Smart Cabin vision a reality, we established our global Yanfeng Technology (YFT) unit two years ago consolidating all our technology and new product development activities with a specific focus on sustainability and the seamless integration of electronics and safety technology into Yanfeng’s products and systems. This even includes a Smart Cabin Controller to orchestrate all features and functions into new mobility experiences that are safer, more comfortable, more entertaining and connected.

As higher levels of driver autonomy become reality, the onboard vehicle experience will continue to shift away from driving as the primary task towards other activities such as working, relaxing, or socialising. Our XiM20 concept car demonstrated some of Yanfeng’s ideas regarding these new possibilities, and how our portfolio of interior, seating, electronics, safety, and exterior products can help bring them to reality. Whether for passengers of the future or for today, Yanfeng continues to research end-user needs to develop products and technologies that create a better life on board.

To what extent do you see more use of touchscreens in the future? Or do you see more gesture, eye movement or something else?

Touch screens will remain a key interaction modality of cars as they allow simple interaction and are well known and understood by users. Users are already comfortable with voice-based interaction as well as gesture control through assistants in smartphones and at home through gaming applications. Eye controlled user interfaces show an additional opportunity for remote-controlled user interfaces, same as voice and gesture control.

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It seems like almost everything is now connected to everything else including the cars. What is your vision of the connected car?

Connected cars provide a wide variety of opportunities and applications for users, OEMs, Tier 1s and 3rd Parties. We see increased driver assistance, communication and on-board services and always current via OTA updates as significant developments improving the interior experience of the future.

At Yanfeng we build on our core products and physical features and digital intelligence, to enhance the individual user experience as well as between occupants and the vehicle itself. In this context digitalisation is the biggest challenge – but also the path to change.

Merging our interior surfaces with digital functions into smart surfaces is exciting to think about. But then the next step would be to leverage data to provide tailored services to a consumer.

What does it mean to us to leverage big data, create a service building on our physical products and leveraging a digital eco-system that provides true value to the end-user? In the future, we will increasingly integrate digital services into our components e.g. wellness features or comfort functions such as seats that automatically adjust to your heart rate. Something our company is exploring in China, for example, is an app for a rideshare car that offers the consumer the option of a seat massage during the ride. A possible business model is to sell the base seat to the automaker but to give away the massage function and instead, take a percentage per use, as a fee. In other words, our company is selling a service, as well as a product, with all the attendant complications, such as who is responsible for the app or for the functionality of the seat.

Could you tell us a little more about your touchFC and the notable highlights?

To help keep the interior clean, the new floor console concept “touchFC” includes UV sanitising and air ionising systems as well as next level air venting technology. Our company has combined innovative kinematics and smart surfaces to create an even safer and more effective human-vehicle interaction, where the main focus is on intuitive control elements. A special highlight of the floor console is an electric storage box with an integrated UV sanitising system. On the rear side of the floor console, easily accessible for passengers on the second row, is an electrically lockable storage box with UV sanitisation. Objects which are stored inside this are sanitised once the box has been closed. The air vent above the storage box is equipped with an integrated ionisation generator which removes dust, bacteria, and viruses from the air. Both the air vent and storage are operated by controls that are integrated into the floor console.
Not so long ago, car interior lighting consisted of central and side headliner lights, complemented by low-level ambient lighting located mainly in the cockpit area. What’s your assessment of the stage of progress with ambient lighting?

Interior lighting is becoming dynamic, functional, intelligent, and changing from spot and linear to entire surfaces integrated into decorative parts that can even be personalised. To follow these trends, we need to combine electronics with decorative designs to offer the best and seamlessly integrated solutions. Interior integration is our key strength to differentiate us from traditional lighting competitors.

I guess that the desire for interior lighting goes beyond aesthetics; it can also influence driver concentration and eye fatigue. How do you see it helping there?

Different colours, intensity and rhythm of light can also be used to help combat driver fatigue and maintain his attention.

But lighting can also be used to focus the driver’s attention on driving situations. For example: Warning of dangerous situations by combining display, light and audio as a multimodal HMI concept.

Ambient light can also be adapted to different driving modes: minimalistic and driving focused in sport mode to enhance front focus. In a brighter and clearer way for a working mode in autonomous driving situations or also with flashing red light to indicate the transition situation from driving mode to autonomous self-driving one.

The importance of health and wellness has come into sharp focus in recent months. Consumer technologies such as fitness trackers have been popular for some time, monitoring our heart rates, performance and sleep, but how might the renewed focus on wellness translate to the automotive space and what role can interior lighting play?

With our holistic Smart Cabin vision, our goal is to make you feel better, healthier and more relaxed during your time spent in our interiors. Air-purification, fragrances, lighting effects, audio and seat comfort features like heating, cooling and massage all working together with the support of sensors and our Smart Cabin controller makes this possible. Specifically, we think that interior lighting will continue to gain importance in the future and contribute to the differentiation of the interior. Also, applications such as sun-like ambient light can support wellness. Natural LED lights can impact positively the mood and attention of the driver and passengers.

In autonomous cars or in the rear seats, it is possible to create a light cocoon with a calm and relaxing light show for a post-work detox during the commute. We showcased a future scenario in the rear zone of our XiM20 cabin that offers occupants a way to retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and create a feel-good atmosphere. The space mimics the cozy atmosphere of a cabin, with a soft fabric surrounding and technology integrations designed to complement passengers’ moods and preferences. In the XiM20, the smart surfaces switch between four different modes, depending on the situation. For example, there is a blue Energy mode and a violet/orange Relax mode. When the UV surface sanitiser is activated, the surface displays blue bubbles. In standby mode, the surfaces stay white.

Do you see the pandemic leading to a long term decline in demand for shared mobility? Or do you see it as just a speed bump?

Using the Chinese market as an indicator – with strict lockdowns at the start of the pandemic and now largely a return to normal life, including all modes of transportation – it would appear that the decline in shared mobility is/was just a speed bump in its development. As a proof point, Didi ridership revenue actually increased 10% in 2020 from 2019. In the middle of the pandemic, they still saw growth year-over-year.

The only lasting consequence seems to be higher consumer awareness about potential contagions in the vehicle interior (whether shared or owned). Most people do care a lot about the cleanliness of their own or shared cars, and people care about a healthy, and appealing interior of the cabin when starting their journeys. Technologies that promote health and wellness were already a trending topic before the pandemic formed our “new normal.”

Today, people are even more concerned about hygiene in their cars.

This is the reason why Yanfeng accelerated development of an aftermarket UV sanitiser for the Chinese market last year. Similar to UV sanitisers in the medical industry, this device sterilises a majority of microbes directly through UV exposure, ensuring a cleaner and safer onboard experience.

But it seems to be that also consumers in Germany are still interested in using shared mobility services. According to a recent study conducted by the international data analysis company YouGov, just over a third of Germans (36 per cent) could imagine using self-driving cars as cabs, while 28 per cent would also consider using them as part of a sharing service.

The last 12 months have been a pretty memorable period for everyone and for all sorts of reasons. In your business, what stands out as the biggest challenges you faced?

Yanfeng maintained productivity and fulfilled delivery demands throughout the pandemic. From an operational standpoint idling production is a challenge, but restarting is an even more difficult task because our global supply chain is so complex, and the COVID pandemic has never stopped.

Like other companies, the biggest challenge while we worked remotely, has been how to maintain the same level of collaboration and information exchange. We relied a lot more on digital tools to keep teams productive. This has provided benefits, such as greater inclusion of global teams who now have a chance to join meetings virtually. However, the speed and synergy of collaborations, creativity and brainstorming in person and face-to-face in larger groups is something that our teams miss, and we look forward to starting these activities again in the very near future.

What did you learn that you did not expect to learn?

If you had asked me two years ago if it was possible to continue our work, almost ‘as usual’ with all our employees working from home all over the world, I would have said that it definitely isn’t possible. Now I know better. Last year was unlike any other – and our teams globally demonstrated flexibility, resilience, perseverance and continued to deliver outstanding results.

Despite the roadblocks the pandemic presented, the global Yanfeng team has stayed on track to meet or exceed our key business commitments and customer expectations. Our teams collaborated well globally and fully leveraged all digital tools. Certainly, many of the innovative business practices implemented by our teams during the pandemic will continue to benefit Yanfeng for years to come.

The COVID crisis and resulting instability also motivate OEM customers to rely on global suppliers they can trust. Our customers appreciate our stability, our long-term vision and our ability to deliver despite the challenging environment.