The Future of Automated Vehicle Cabins

Automated driving technologies, electrification, and shifting customer priorities are inspiring the transformation of vehicle cockpit design and materials.

Yangfeng’s XiM21 technology demonstrator showcased deeply reclining “hovering” seats. (Yangfeng)

Although there are yet no privately owned, fully automated vehicles on the road, automakers and suppliers are working to develop vehicle interior technologies, materials and designs they think will serve occupants not just of SAE Level 4 automated vehicles (AVs), but users of the advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) and electric vehicles that will serve in the transition to full automation. It’s a black art consisting of equal parts experience, forecasting, creative design and innovative engineering.

Door panel of IAC-developed demonstrator shows how light and display surfaces can contribute to driver awareness, cabin ambiance. (IAC)
One seating configuration startup Canoo suggests for the rear seating area of its van-like Lifestyle Vehicle. (Canoo)
A rear seating area in the Lucid Air EV intended for maximum relaxation. (Lucid Motors)

The new dictates of interacting with ADAS-equipped and electrified vehicles – as well as the still-embryonic sector of automated ride-hailing and ridesharing services – are showing the way for what the long-discussed “cabin of the future” might look like and what technologies it will offer.

On the way to that future, expect a limitless number of ideas and executions. The path from cabins for today’s ADAS and electrified vehicles to cockpits for personal-use AVs will be twisting and diverse. And that’s before considering the transportation industry’s other significant development channel: ride-hail and rideshare vehicles operated by fleets and private owners.

“We did a study two years ago, looking at how people would use autonomous vehicles, and we found a strong delineation,” explained Jeff Stout, executive director, Yanfeng Automotive Interiors. “We separated the user experience into minutes, hours and years. The years-of-ownership experience is traditional – you buy a vehicle, drive it, park it in your garage and own it over time. But minutes and hours, especially in an autonomous world, is not traditional. We got some insights from the study and from Uber and Lyft; when you take the driver out of that and you’re just getting transportation – mobility – what does that change? The answer is that it changes everything.”

While details of Apple’s autonomous-vehicle program are scarce, some recent media reports citing internal sources describe cabin configurations similar to EV startup Canoo’s Lifestyle Vehicle, in which rear-seat occupants face each other, limousine-style. Apple interior concepts also reportedly have located the vehicle’s touch-screen-based infotainment system in the center of the passenger space, to encourage user interaction and interface with Apple’s own mobile devices.

“In the world of high-volume personal vehicles and commercial trucks, there will be many different cockpits of the future, delineated by purpose, segments and price,” asserted Drew Winter, senior analyst at Informa Tech, which annually names the auto industry’s 10 Best Interiors and monitors vehicle cabin-related trends.

Although heavy use of glass for oversized touchscreens and instrument clusters has emerged as a futuristic-looking solution for many current and potential user-interface (UI) functionalities, Winter projects that many entry-level and mid-priced vehicles – particularly outside the U.S. market – may not have screens at all. They’ll instead rely on a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) strategy, which could be necessary to make AV technology more widely affordable.

‘Tracking’ from now to then

The UI possibilities for interacting with automation and ADAS capabilities run not just to design, but to cabin materials, too. Global suppliers such as International Automotive Components (IAC) envision technology integration into “traditional” vehicles surfaces – door panels, for one – that will facilitate interaction with ADAS and AV functionalties.

Certain AV functionalities could be enhanced by Mitsubishi Electric’s adaptable central touchscreen that is motorized to shift between landscape and portrait orientation. (Mitsubishi Electric)
Cabin-cleansing technology is forecast to be an important feature for not only publicly-shared AVs but also privately-owned vehicles. (Yangfeng)

IAC’s spin on the glass-heavy trend underway (arguably started by Tesla) in a number of new luxury and electric vehicles (EVs) extends to visual aids in a technology demonstrator door panel, for one. It’s a vivid bridge between current design and functional considerations and future capabilities for AVs.

“We're putting in back backlit translucent surfaces [in door panels],” said David Pascoe, IAC’s chief technical officer. “That's user interface stuff that we see [coming soon]. A lot of these things track right across traditional vehicles, but also to autonomous vehicles and to rideshare, ride-hailing type vehicles as well. So, you can find them right across the board.” Pascoe added that use of light also is likely to serve a new AV/rideshare purpose: indicating that ultraviolet (UV-C) cleaning of surfaces is underway or has taken place.

“You can kill viruses in a number ways,” he said “By additives, UV light, key durable cleanable surfaces and then the list goes on. But we focus on four different areas for that, which is additives, heat, UV and cleanable.” It’s widely believed occupant concerns with COVID and other sanitary issues will have a lasting impact on cabin material and technology shared by commercial and private vehicles alike.

“We know that our OEM customers are interested in this space and we know that they're trying to sort out how they're going to address it,” said Pascoe. “They haven't given us a clear direction that says, ‘I want a heated surface, I want a UV surface, or I want materials in the surface that kills viruses,’ because they'll perform a little bit differently and they all have a different price point – but they all have a different kind of ‘wow’ factor.” He added that already-desirable surface-heating features that allow EVs to conserve vital battery capacity can be designed to do future duty to kill bacteria, as high heat isn’t necessary.

Expect antibacterial/antimicrobial surfaces to be front and center in the emergent class of SAE Level 4-5 roboshuttles like those now in operational pilot programs in many places around the globe. Pascoe said current technologies have demonstrated up to 99.9% antibacterial efficacy. And as automakers search for and apply new materials for seating and other surfaces, there are possibilities for developing bacteria-resistant fiber blends – another endgame that dovetails with current trends being addressed by automakers: saving weight and offering a socially-responsible alternative to leather.

“Many of the automotive OEMs are implementing ‘sustainable’ materials. Some are approaching the idea that replacing leather to “vegan leather” is at the forefront,” said Sue Magnusson – director of Color, Material and Finishes at luxury EV maker Lucid Motors. “Looking back, the BMW i3 was the interior that started much of this discussion,” she added. “We have a much wider selection [of materials] and more opportunities to work hand-and-hand with suppliers to create sustainable materials with new and appealing aesthetics.”

Automated vehicles designed to transition between fully automated mode or human-piloted operation may incorporate retracting steering wheels to permit maximum adaptability of the cabin configuration. (Yangfeng)

The need to address how vehicle users interact with rapidly advancing driving automation, and their growing environmental awareness, is informing a quiet revolution in the supplier-OEM business model. Both entities are aware of the consumer and technology trends that are progressing quickly.

“In my previous 26 years in the business, the OEMs would come to us asking for collaboration on their interior ideas,” said Yangfeng’s Stout. “We would still do a lot of the innovation to try to provoke them, but in the end it was them telling us what they needed us to do. In the last year, however, that’s really turned itself upside down.

“This is due to the recognition that we’re not just trying to improve a vehicle three percent per model year, but we’re actually trying to develop an entirely new model and method for launching vehicles,” he continued. As autonomous becomes more and more of a thing, automakers are asking two questions: ‘What does that interior need to be?’ and secondly, ‘How do they make the vehicle autonomous?

Stout provided one example of the bridging of today’s development efforts with the potential needs of an AV future: Yanfeng’s new Zero Gravity or “hovering” seat. “That has a great application in autonomous vehicles, where you can recline and relax. But there are huge safety questions related to it,” he admits. “How do you get occupants out of a steep recline? What is the seatbelt strategy? The airbag strategy? What are the kinematics of the seat mechanism? I could put that in a traditional car as a passenger seat on a long seat rail. The ‘pull’ for that type of seat is in the AV environment, but the development of that product is being done by the innovation team.”

He also made a critical product-development point: “Our decision was to not segregate the technologists such as the sensor people. We have a sensors group; you have sensors in a traditional vehicle, but you have more of them in an AV.”

IAC’s Pascoe pointed to his company’s development of “intelligent” functions embedded into door panels and A-pillars. A glass tweeter enclosure in the A-pillar reduces the blind spot, while a light-up door pull can indicate to a rideshare occupant if it’s safe to emerge and where to place a hand for a proximity function to automatically (and touchlessly) open the door.

Reimagined space and interactions

“The autonomous vehicle for taxi or ride-sharing fleets is different than an AV designed for personal use,” noted Steve Downing, CEO at Gentex. “They will drive the need for many new technologies that supplement a vehicle’s autonomous operation – including creature comforts that would be valuable even for automated-driving vehicles.”

Robotaxis and automated shuttles likely will be the first touch most consumers have with high-level vehicle automation. In interviews with consumers who use ride-hailing services, IAC learned that “sometimes people have a fear of the driver because they don't know them personally,” Pascoe said. Or with a completely automated taxi or shuttle, the rider can feel uncomfortably disconnected from vehicle decision-making.

An effective communication interface to the vehicle is essential, he explained. “When you have an [artificial intelligence], you’ve got to be able to talk to it and it's got to be able to talk to you. I see haptics as a way, lighting as a way. I think we're going to see a lot more voice communication because you need to say things like, ‘Go down there, go over there,’ and it needs to understand you – so that needs to be highly reliable. I think voice is for non-instant or mission critical stuff, but you still have to be able talk to it.”

Meanwhile, it’s almost a certainty AVs cabins will have a more sustainable “profile.” Trends already are in place in the EV market – and not merely because EVs typically are more expensive. Tom Murphy, Informa Tech’s managing editor who oversees the 10 Best Interiors competition, said today’s EVs evidence many cabin trends likely to progress into ADAS-equipped vehicles and AVs. “They’re at least one generation removed from ‘conventional’ interiors,” he said. “I see it as reimagining the space. And many customers’ priority is the elimination of carbon.”

Lucid Motors’ Magnusson is certain the consumer mindset is altered and sustainability will be a part of the typical AV’s bill of materials. Luxury, she said, is “no longer about the opulence of things but of experiences.” Lucid customers seek out products that are not harming the earth, are healthier for their families, as well as being the best technology, she said.

Lucid’s vision goes further, extending even to color schemes that translate to a potential gain for future automated driving. “Our interior design team wanted to create the front cabin with the driving experience as a priority, an active place, while the rear cabin was more relaxing, tailored to enjoying the journey,” Magnusson explained. “Creating the darker front [seat] space for a sporty performance look and the back with a color that added a warm and calming ambiance. We imagined as autonomous driving becomes available, this cabin experience will be even more appreciated. It was our intention to create an interior space where the back seat is a first-class experience, providing an environment with room to stretch, relax, work, and enjoy the journey.”

“There’s a massive push globally for increased sustainability in automotive materials – reducing solid waste, and ASR [automotive shredder residue],” said Yangfeng’s Stout. “Sustainable materials are driving changes in behavior at YF, where we actually assess the sustainability of any new material and indeed any innovation we do – not just at the ‘belly’ level but having criteria to judge whether it’s better or worse from a sustainability standpoint. That being said, Europe is a little further along than the U.S. is on this.”

IAC’s Pascoe agrees. “There seems to be a really intensifying pressure around using natural materials and recycled materials.” He added that, happily, these alternatives often are lighter-weight, which offers a secondary advantage of reducing overall vehicle weight, which is particularly critical for EVs.

Although there is debate about the cost of sustainable materials – some sources say leather alternatives, for one, can be significantly less expensive – cost reductions to offset AV technology may come in other facets of AV cabin designs. Elimination of physical buttons in favor of capacitive or resistive pressure-sensing switches or touchscreen activations can cut cost and also reduce cabin clutter. And lighter materials can conceivably translate to reduction in the required battery capacity to achieve a given driving-range target – a crucial selling point for both AV fleet operators and consumers.