THE CAR HAS long proved a cornerstone of American life, inextricably tied to almost everything people do in work, life, leisure, and business. It is also a marker of our contemporary moment, distilling and reacting to cultural cues—think of the bombastic muscle cars of the Vietnam era, and the trepidatious econo-boxes that arrived in its wake. That won’t change anytime soon, but the car will undergo radical change—from the inside out.
“I look at the exterior as the love at first site, and the interior as the long-term relationship,” says says Derek Jenkins, chief of design for California electric vehicle startup Lucid Motors. “That’s very much where you have to spend time, intimate time, with the vehicle. It’s physical, it’s hands-on. It’s where you really either appreciate the product, or it annoys you.”
New powertrains and new technologies are likely to makeover the automotive interior far more in the next five to ten years than anything seen since Cadillac brought out the first enclosed car in 1910. Cars are learning to drive themselves and starting to talk to each other. They are running on electricity and ditching the family garage.
“Autonomy, connected technologies, electrification, and the share movement. Those four pillars are changing expectation and changing the use case of the interior simultaneously,” Jenkins says.
Some of this rise in the interior’s importance is based on the trickle-down impact of logistics. The average American commute has increased by more than twenty percent since 1980, and globally in mega-cities like Beijing and Cairo, time in the car can stretch out toward the unimaginable. And so people create more requirements of their vehicle.
“The interior of an automobile used to be nothing more than a soft bench seat and a roof to keep occupants comfortable and out of the elements,” says Michael Harley, executive analyst for industry research firm Kelley Blue Book. “Today, it’s a safety cage, a music amphitheater, a telephone conference room, a place to eat meals, and more. Vehicles are no longer machines that simply move people between two points, and shoppers demand much more from the interior than they did even a decade ago.”
Another driver of interior innovation? The vehicle safety and crashworthiness regulations cramp the creativity of exterior designs by necessitating features like smaller windows and blunter front grilles. Combined with the immutability of aerodynamics, you can see why so many cars these days look the same. As exterior design becomes more generic, the interior can shine as a point of differentiation.
The shifting nature of the auto industry will produce more change. Looking for economies of scale, automakers now create “global vehicles”—cars that can be sold in any market around the world. So demands in one region, especially a big markets like China, for things like enhanced rear legroom, mood-enhancing multi-colored ambient lights, and in-car perfume atomizers, find their way across the oceans.
Then there’s the simpler reason: Consumers never stop wanting more, and so the auto industry has devoted itself to an interior arms race. “What has changed over the past decade is the consumer expectation of what the interior should look like. This includes the integration of new features, and high-quality materials,” says Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision. “When lower priced brands like Kia are paying extra attention to interior quality, it sets a very high bar that everyone now competes at, or above.”
A Whole New Universe
All of these big changes merit a deeper look, which is why this is the first of a four-part series on the automotive interior. These advanced systems will do much to wipe the slate clean of decades of accepted interior design conventions.
“Think of the traditional luxury sedan, that had the big V8 and transmission out in front. That not only drove the silhouette of the car. That drove the occupant space of the car,” says Lucid’s Jenkins. “An electric powertrain takes up just a fraction of the space of an internal combustion engine. If that’s all of a sudden eighty percent smaller in size, well, what do we do with all that space?”
More profound is the approach of autonomous vehicles, because once the car doesn’t need a driver, century-old design constraints disappear. Imagine a car interior that doesn’t need a steering wheel, or windshield, or windows, or forward-facing seats. Imagine the possible interior layouts (mobile restaurant, art installation, party lounge, nap pod) when a car is not owned by a single person, but rather shared and engaged only when it is needed, and made relevant to the task at hand.
“It’s a huge new universe that’s opening up in front of us, and we are just at the forefront, just scratching the surface,” says Bill Chergosky, who leads advanced interior design for Toyota’s Calty studio in California. This series will track that opening, and guide you to what’s coming next.