Your Next Car May Be a Living Room on Wheels

Your Next Car May Be a Living Room on Wheels

A driverless future may transform automotive interiors. In fact, some of that future is already here.

By Chester Dawson Updated June 19, 2017 10:19 a.m. ET

Imagine rearranging the seats in your car to watch a movie on a big screen in the dashboard. Or controlling functions like air conditioning by touching the window. Or replacing rearview mirrors with cameras that give you a live-action look at the surrounding traffic.

Those are just some of the ideas car makers and designers are kicking around as they imagine a driverless future. When cars can largely navigate roads on their own, there’s no need for the interior design to rigidly follow the model established in the early days of automobiles. The inside of driverless cars might look more like living rooms or meeting places on wheels, with a focus on flexibility and entertainment.

Industry officials say fully autonomous and shared-mobility vehicles may be a decade or more away, but increasingly high-tech interiors will start showing up in the next few model years. On the latest luxury-car models, information has begun to move from digital instruments behind the wheel to head-up displays projected on the windshield, so drivers can monitor things like speed and turn-signal indicators without looking down. And other amenities are in the works, such as seats that fully recline or rotate 180 degrees, dashboard ice chests and ambient lighting.

“Sci-fi is really not fiction anymore—it’s really here,” Ralph Gilles, head of design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, said recently at an industry conference. Mr. Giles talked up the idea of cars becoming more of a “third space” outside the work and home.

The idea is showcased in his company’s Portal concept vehicle, featuring removable seats and a retractable steering wheel, which made its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year in Las Vegas.

Closer than they appear

One of the biggest changes on the way is in visual-display technology, which will transform vehicles inside and out, says Carter Cannon, a product manager for electronic integration at International Automotive Components Group.

External side-view mirrors will disappear as digital camera images migrate to interior screens, similar to those that rearview cameras use now. And back-seat buttons and switches will move from arm rests to touchscreen-like side windows to control functions such as back-seat air conditioning.

“Information will move above the belt line and become displayed on the glass,” Mr. Cannon told attendees at an industry conference in May. All this will free up the cabin for further design changes.

Another design change that promises to radically reshape the driving experience: movable seats. This change may be anything from giving people more-flexible storage options, all the way up to completely remaking the interior of the car to suit different purposes.

For an idea of what’s possible, consider a concept car from auto supplier Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, which made its debut at the Detroit auto show earlier this year. The XiM17 (short for “Experience in Motion 2017”) showcased several different seating configurations depending on the mode selected: driving, family, lounge and meeting.

The driving mode is fairly standard, but in the other setups, the car retracts the steering wheel and radically reconfigures the cabin. The family mode creates a home-theater experience: The front seats rotate inward and the rear seats slide together into a bench, so that everyone can watch an elongated screen at the center of the dashboard. The screen, about 10 by 36 inches, would be used for instrument displays when not showing movies.

“It’s a living room on wheels,” says David Muyres, an executive director in the North American unit of Yanfeng, in which Chinese auto maker Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. owns a 70% stake through subsidiaries.

The XiM17’s meeting mode envisions the car as an extended office. To create space, it collapses the rear seats, rotates the passenger seat 180 degrees and slides the driver’s seat back to the rear. Stowaway trays in a center console provide perches for laptops and can be combined into a single center table.

Lounge mode offers an LCD-like screen on the ceiling that can show images while music plays on a multispeaker audio system and LED lights on the floor pulsate and flash to the beat.

Other companies are coming up with ways to make sure that passengers will have plenty of snacks for their new home theater or meeting space on wheels. Sweden-based Dometic Group AB, which already supplies center-console mini-refrigerators to luxury brands such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, has sketched out concepts for door-mounted bottle coolers, dashboard-embedded ice chests and compact microwave ovens for truck cabins.

Cleaning up

Of course, there’s a downside to turning cars into entertainment centers or other multiuse spaces: lots of dirt and other messes. Those could be an even bigger problem for one group of self-driving vehicles in particular—those used by shared-mobility services like Uber, which will carry multiple passengers and for more hours of the day.

So auto makers will need to come up with carpets and seat cushions that can hold up to greater added wear and tear, and cope with messy one-time riders who have little or no ownership of a particular car. Possible solutions include more-resilient fabrics that can be cleaned easily.

“The interiors of these vehicles are going to have to be puke-proof,” says Ralph Gilles, head of design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

Already, auto makers are looking to service industries such as airlines and hotels to learn how to better maintain shared spaces. At a recent industry conference, Tim Boundy, an interior-engineering technical fellow at General Motors Co., highlighted the need for “odor management” and other solutions. Among his intriguing suggestions: “self-cleaning cup holders.”


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