Designers are envisioning new looks for vehicle interiors, as in-vehicle connectivity and electrified powertrains usher in the autonomous driving age. As more EVs enter the marketplace with battery packs housed underneath the cabin floor, the door opens to a new era of interiors.
“A flat cabin floor will give us a lot more leeway to do more creative things within the car space,” Richard Chung, Vice President of Innovation & Design for Adient, the independent company spun off from Johnson Controls in 2016. Chung spoke with Automotive Engineering at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
With the progression toward shift-by-wire and steer-by-wire technologies, interior planners will no longer have to design around the powertrain tunnel. A flat cabin floor devoid of a powertrain hump will bring about re-configured interior environments.
New materials, multi-modal design
Adient’s newest interior concept, the AI18, features five different seating modes for SAE Level 3 and 4 autonomous driving. The seat supplier developed the AI18 based on findings from its proprietary studies of customers’ seating needs for 2030 and beyond.
AI18’s 'family mode' is the closest to today’s conventional vehicle cabin with two forward-facing front seats and a rear bench seat. In the baby-plus mode, front seats rotate 180° so parents can engage with their children while traveling. An integrated ISOFIX restraint system attaches a child seat to the rear seat.
In the AI18’s 'cargo mode,' the rear seat cushion retracts into the cargo bay via an electric mechanism to provide additional stow space behind the front seats. In the communication mode, front seats rotate toward each other. To accomplish this seat movement, Adient engineers are developing a seating platform that lifts, enabling the seats to turn within a compact interior space. The upward-kinematics movement of the seating platform occurs with the person in the seat. Adient claims this to be an industry-first.
'Lounge mode' accents comfort as the front seats anthropometric pivot enables a recline beyond today’s normal range. The seat’s headrest, integrated armrests, and leg support are synchronized to move with the occupant. Front row seat belts are part of the seat structure instead of being integrated into the B-pillar as is today’s practice.
“What we see in the future is that the seating is going to be the center of everything,” Chung said, stressing the importance of offering easily modified seating modes in a driverless vehicle. “The term driver will eventually disappear. Everybody will be a rider, all equal.”
In future ride-sharing autonomous driving scenarios, a vehicle’s cabin materials probably won’t be vastly different from those of today. Metal-based and petroleum-based materials are expected to retain heavy usage, but with some different applications.
For example, Adient's 2017 concept interior featured a plastic mesh in place of traditional seat foam. This reduced seat thickness by approximately 3-in (76 mm) and saved weight. Plastic is a realistic alternative to foam, according to Chung, as it provides elasticity and structural integrity.
“We’re probably the biggest supplier of foam pad for seat makers, but we also realize that we have to think about the next step,” he said. There's also the issue of seat durability, an increasing concern for interior systems designers and materials engineers as ride sharing and vehicle autonomy gain popularity.
Chung sees the need for stronger materials such as Monofil, used for the AI18’s unique seat covers. The woven fabric, currently in development, offers strength and durability similar to that of a fishing line, he said.
In addition to comfort and durability, seats in a self-driving vehicle will have greater functionality. Those in the AI18 concept contain sensors that capture a person’s body position and pressure points, and that information forms the basis of an intelligent comfort assistant. Embedded sensors could also be used to monitor an occupant’s vital signs, such as pulse and heart rates.
Chung calls this new level of connectivity "tele-health." He said Adient believes it is completely viable in future vehicles.
And each seat inside a self-driving vehicle likely will be linked to all vehicle safety systems. Adient and safety-systems supplier Autoliv recently announced a strategic partnership to develop solutions for passenger safety regardless of the seat’s position.