Inside out

Car interiors have been widely neglected, with homogenous designs that have remained fundamentally unchanged for the past 50 years. John Stones talks to specialist designers and discovers it could be about to change.

The experience of driving a car has changed little since the 1950s. Yes, cars have become progressively faster, more comfortable and safer, and the roads slower and more congested. But the interior environment is largely unchanged – a steering wheel, virtually standardised gauges and buttons to press, and a gearstick between passenger and driver. Design, in the fullest sense, has not been able to keep abreast of engineering. But this is about to change, and here are the thoughts of mobile/interface designers, a recent graduate, a head of interior design for one of the largest car companies and an industrial designer. While their takes differ, all believe a dramatic transformation is about to take place.

Maserati Birdcage 75

Pininfarina and Motorola

For a show car to commemorate 90 years of Maserati and 75 years of legendary Italian car stylist Pininfarina, Motorola – better known for its mobile phones – designed an interior to demonstrate how cutting edge communications technology could transform a car’s cockpit (pictured below). The project was led by Franco Lodato, then creative director of the Future Design Lab, Motorola iDEN Mobile Devices, and now vice- president of design, Herman-Miller, working with Moni Wolf and Peter Aloumanis. They felt that interface design, in the mobile world, offered a level of sophistication and intuition not present in automotive design – approaching it from the standpoint of communication rather than engineering. Lodato says they proceeded by ‘thinking of cars as a network’ and used the shark as a ‘concept animal’. He suggests that ‘car designers need to learn about integrating communication’. Aloumanis points out that, even in the ‘most sophisticated car interiors, such as an S Class Mercedes or a 7 Series BMW, you still have knobs and buttons. The format has remained the same, but the technology has become more complicated. You take your life in your hands, if you want to change the radio station at speed.’

For the Maserati Birdcage, the team didn’t want to turn the new cockpit into a video game, despite the transparent, head-up display. Lodato says, ‘We wanted to make something very clear and simple – also something that takes in the inside out, such as the ability to download and store your drive [recorded by cameras] on an iPen.’

Following the lead of aircraft, where everything isn’t available at all times, certain functions, such as mobile phone or Web browsing, shut down at speed and become available once a car slows down. Motorola is already testing its technology for compliance with EU safety legislation, ahead of being used for Mercedes’ Maybach and other cars in the future. But already, in the next few months, it predicts that we will see the introduction of fingerprint recognition and mobile handsets being used to start cars.

Ford Iosis

Interior designed by Nikolaus Vidakovic

Nikolaus Vidakovic, chief designer of interiors for Ford of Europe, disagrees with the claim that car interior design hasn’t evolved in 30 years. But he concedes that, ‘You have to remember that the whole car industry is very conservative, and it’s very careful about what it wants people to sit behind. There are certain needs and a heritage. A steering wheel is still a steering wheel, an instrument panel is still an instrument panel. The innovation is in the details.’

The influx of new technologies will be dealt with differently by the different brands, he says. For a mass-market brand, such as Ford, the emphasis will be a ‘big push on quality and much more interesting surfaces – the touch and feel characteristics’, as well as a more ergonomic approach, demonstrated in the steering wheel of the Iosis concept car. Innovation in plastic technology, which allows it to mimic the texture, colour and even touch temperature of a variety of materials, such as metal, will facilitate these changes, he says.

Ford also has a dedicated product design group working on the jewellery pieces – the air vents and so on – the quality of which can heavily influence user perceptions of the interior environment.

But Vidakovic is sceptical about bringing in design expertise from outside. ‘For instance, Seymour Powell was involved in the early stages on the Ford C-Max. When it came to execution, the work fell short of our internal requirements. In the end, not much of its work was left – it didn’t get the point,’ he says. ‘Seymour Powell suggested shelves in the rear of the car, but when we put this into research, people said this wasn’t something they would pay money for. Or the ideas fail to meet regulatory obligations,’ he adds.

Sebastian Conran

Director at Conran & Partners

Sebastian Conran, a director of Conran & Partners, self-confessed petrol head and consultant to Nissan, says there are some key issues in the design of car interiors. He thinks safety features and streamlining have conspired to make the interiors very claustrophobic. Instead, he says, ‘cars should encourage people to feel relaxed, which is not the same as inattentive. It’s about serotonin, not testosterone, especially considering the traffic in which we now have to sit.’

Rather than stepping into a pleasant environment, he says people are ‘bowled [over] by the smell of plastics’ or confronted by ‘vomit velours’. He adds, ‘Cars are now almost entirely a plastic environment, including the Aston Martin, which is a bit like a Ford Bogus.’ Taking a leaf out of the Smart Car (which has swappable exterior panels), he proposes a customisable interior. ‘I would love to have a car where I could replace the interior,’ he says. ‘Why leave it to the likes of Halfords?’

Above all, he believes there is a lot of room for the application of common sense. ‘Why isn’t there a waste paper basket in a car, despite them all having ashtrays? Or blinds, so that you can close them when you leave the car? One of the problems is that there is a lot of value engineering taking place at the moment, and interiors tend to suffer first, as they are a ‘subjective’ area, unlike, say, suspension or other mechanical elements. A car I recently drove made me feel as if I was driving a photocopier – well designed but using that same language.’

Serge Porcher

Research associate at the Royal College of Art

Noting that the ‘architecture of the vehicle dashboard has remained substantially unchanged since mass production’, Porcher sought a solution that could integrate the vastly increased amount of information it now has to contain. Using laser projection technology – developed together with automotive supplier Visteon – information is projected on to three separate areas. By touching virtual buttons on the central section, the driver selects the information he or she wants displayed directly in front of them, so that secondary information, such as entertainment or navigation, can be in the direct line of sight, with obvious benefits in safety and ease of use. Some critical aspects, such as speed display, could be retained in the classic analogue/mechanical manner, sitting above the projected display.

An advantage of the design, apart from the simplicity and clarity of the information channels, is that it can be easily tailored to give the particular feel that the different automotive brands so jealously protect. But the technology requires further development before it is suitable for production.

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