Inner Visions

Automated-driving and ADAS functionalities continue to influence some of the latest cabin safety and materials trends.

Continental’s Cockpit Vision 2025 concept. (Continental)

Evolving market realities have OEMs and automated-driving developers adjusting once-aggressive timelines for deploying high-level driving automation. But new materials and safety technology for vehicle interiors continue to be influenced by advancing AV and ADAS functionalities. Regardless of how much driving automation is at play, vehicle cabins are evolving because of the possibilities – and challenges – automation and ADAS present.

Gentex driver-monitoring system. (Gentex)

An array of launching or soon-to-arrive safety features, driver-information technology and materials innovations don’t need AV applications as a reason for being, however. Drew Winter, Informa Tech Automotive’s principal analyst – Cockpit of the Future, said that some of the feature and safety requirements of electric-vehicle and younger-demographic customers align with the technology directions for AVs and ADAS. New sustainable upholstery choices are a feature many current EV and young buyers desire, for example. Those same types of materials may also better address the durability and serviceability needs of automated shuttles and robotaxis.

Continental’s cabin-spanning display incorporates distraction-reducing technology; below is a smart-surface material that engages a display only when required. (Continental)
Steering-column mock-up showing Asahi Kasei’s concept for integrating a breath-sensing driver-impairment monitor; intake is the nacelle atop the column. (SAE Media)

Visions for the direction of new-generation vehicle cabins have changed in the past five years, Winter asserts in a new research report, “The Cockpit of the Future: Now to After 2030.” “Possibilities for L4 and L5 autonomy in personal cars have dimmed steadily,” Winter said in the report. Many advanced safety and materials technologies and features conceived for fully-automated and assisted driving nonetheless are coming to even relatively conventional vehicles, he added. And discussions with many suppliers related to these features reinforce that reality.

“A few of the [advanced cabin] technologies we think are critical are the evolution of the next-generation seatbelt and a true push to try to solve the alcohol-driving problem,” said Len Cech, executive director, Safety Innovation, at Joyson Safety Systems. Technology already under development for AV-related purposes will in many senses prove directly applicable to these and other use cases.

Driver monitoring moves ahead

Expanding availability of “hands-off” ADAS such as GM’s Super Cruise and Ford’s Blue Cruise is increasing the focus on driver-monitoring technology to assure drivers don’t abuse their newfound freedom by excessively averting attention from the road. Current driver-monitoring systems (DMS) typically are camera-based with software to help assess attention levels. But things are poised to get a lot more sophisticated, said several cabin-tech suppliers.

Brian Brackenbury, director, product line management at Gentex Corp., a key supplier of cabin technology widely known for its electrochromic rearview mirrors and Homelink connectivity system, said the company currently supplies 2D driver-monitoring via a camera housed in the rearview mirror. But the next evolution, he said, is 3D vision merging camera imaging with a near-infrared dot projector “that will allow us to do 3D facial ID.”

The 3D vision enables a more-sophisticated understanding of the driver’s (and potentially other occupants’) attention and actions. The technical competency largely comes via Gentex’s acquisition of Israel-based Guardian Optical in 2021.

As a concept at CES 2020, BMW’s ZeroG Lounger foresaw flexible seating arrangements that robotaxis, AVs and assisted-driving potentially enable, while also demonstrating the possibilities for properly restraining occupants who are seated unconventionally. (BMW)
Head and torso protection from Joyson’s BARS belt-integrated airbag. (Joyson)

There is a range of features 3D functionality will bring to cabins, said Joyson engineers, some of which are particularly targeted at automated vehicles. These include proximity to deployable restraints or surfaces, smoking vapor detection, occupant posture and seatbelt positioning.

For enhanced driver/occupant monitoring, “You need high fidelity,” agreed Joyson’s Cech. “We think 3D provides that.” Joyson also is working on a DMS/occupant-monitoring system leveraging infrared capabilities — “Kind of radar and vision tied together,” he said. However, “there’s still a fair amount of work to do before it reaches production,” probably sometime around 2027, added Jason Lisseman, Joyson’s VP, Integrated Safety Solutions GPL.

Gentex also is developing an iris-recognition system, said CTO Neil Boehm. “That technology isn’t quite ready for the automotive space,” he said, adding that cameras backed by increasing degrees of artificial intelligence and neural networks currently are the company’s favored approach. Although there are differing regulations in various world markets, Boehm said his company is prepping for driver monitoring to essentially be required globally in all new vehicles approximately by the 2026 model year.

Joyson envisions motorized seatbelt retractors as central to ensuring occupants are properly restrained in unconventional seating arrangements. (Joyson)

Meanwhile, Volvo thinks current driver monitoring has room for improvement — via better understanding of a driver’s cognitive state. For the DMS of its new EX90 crossover EV, the company employed naturalistic driving research to create algorithms that “understand” the driver’s attention level. The system’s real goal: to be less intrusive and more forgiving before it questions the driver’s attentiveness.

But there’s another task DMS will be asked to tackle: pending rulemaking from the NHTSA to require a system to detect driver impairment, whether alcohol- or drug-related. The federal infrastructure bill of 2021 directed the NHTSA to develop a final rule by 2024 that requires all new passenger vehicles to be fitted with a system to detect driver impairment. Automakers then would have two or three years to begin installing the system as standard equipment. But there currently is no consensus on which type of technology can or should be used. Most development is directed at breath detection or a spectroscopic (touch-based) approach, but vision-based methods also may be viable.

“Vision (impairment detection) is one interesting way,” claimed Gentex’s Brackenbury. But he said there is considerable work to remaining on determining accuracy and repeatability standards, regardless of the chosen technology. Meanwhile, breath-detection is “flawed,” said Lisseman. “Our view is that you can do that through touch. We feel that spectroscopy is evolving and it’s becoming quite feasible.” He said MEMs-based systems hold promise for the touch-based approach for the requirement that he thinks will “take hold” in perhaps 2026-27.

Supplier Asahi Kasei, which specializes in filtration media and electronics among other automotive technologies, in early 2021 displayed both breath- and touch-based impairment-detection systems. Michael Franchy, director of North American Mobility at Asahi Kasei America, told SAE Media that the company was collaborating with the Virginia-based Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) research program. Volvo, on its 2024 EX90, is among the first OEMs to deploy cabin sensors to monitor potential driver intoxication.

Best seats in the house

Flexible and adaptable seating arrangements are another cabin innovation set to gain momentum, said Informa Tech’s Winter. At first, new seating arrangements and designs “probably will be for commercial-type applications,” he noted, such as shuttles (driven or driverless) and robotaxis.

The challenge, said Joyson engineers, is to ensure the same or better levels of occupant safety than regulated today. The company is developing a spectrum of solutions for what it also sees as an inevitable trend. These include its Belt Attached Restrain Supplement (BARS), a seatbelt-mounted, head and torso cocooning airbag designed specifically for “new interior concepts” with non-traditional seating possibilities. The BARS airbag, working in conjunction with the company’s new digital motorized seatbelt (DMS), is intended to protect occupants not only in an unconventionally placed seat, but also if a deeply reclined posture, the engineers noted.

This BARS airbag and DMS seatbelt ideally would be adaptively deployed according to what a cabin-monitoring system indicated about all occupants’ positioning. Joyson’s Len Cech stressed that this safety hardware, however, requires crash-testing regulations that address freedom-of-position seating.

Informa Tech’s Winter said flexible seating is one of three or four AV-inspired cabin features that’s definitely on the horizon. But none of it will happen without the appropriate safety enablers. “Cars are always going to have seatbelts,” he insisted. “As long as AVs have to share the road with non-autonomous vehicles, there will be seatbelts.”

Screening for safety

For those who believe display screens have taken over our lives, there’s bad news: expect more of them. Measurement soon may come by the square foot. And expanding assisted-driving capabilities will offer more likelihood for all occupants to be engaged with in-cabin displays.

Informa Tech research shows screens per vehicle proliferating through at least 2028. But with the goal of mitigating distraction, displays are becoming smarter. Continental’s Switchable Privacy Display and ShyTech technology show the way: Although both unashamedly boast A-pillar to A-pillar coverage, they use technology that in many instances activates the display only when required. The Switchable Privacy Display uses a variation of the concept, angling potentially distracting images or content such that it only can be viewed by the front-seat passenger.

Research from Informa Tech/Ward’s Intelligence indicates most-desired attributes for “smart” cabin materials. (Ward’s Intelligence)

Consumers overwhelmingly indicate they want more — and larger — screens, but the newest technology almost paradoxically aims to tone it all down. “The idea that you can turn off some of this distraction is a big deal” for the future of in-cabin displays, said Winter.

Motivating materials

For the increasing number of buyers eschewing leather, Volvo’s new EX90 electric vehicle offers sustainably produced wool-blend seat upholstery, as well as Nordico, its own textile made from a blend of recycled materials. (Volvo)

The industry is well underway with efforts to improve the recyclability of cabin materials, particularly seat fabric and foam, which account for the bulk of a vehicle’s non-recyclable content. Automakers and suppliers have heard the customer voice regarding more sustainable materials for inside the vehicle.

Winter said Volvo is proving to be one of the most assertive automakers in introducing sustainable materials, with Rivian and BMW also breaking new ground. BMW’s all-new iX EV uses sustainably-grown wood and “a high proportion of recycled plastics in the surfaces of the door panels, seats, center console and floor coverings, plus floor mats made from recycled nylon waste material,” the company claims. Volvo’s new EX90, mentioned above, also boasts a variety of sustainable cabin materials. Continental recently introduced its Benova Eco Protect, a robust but premium soft-touch material with a low VOC profile and a low carbon footprint that also happens to be 20% lighter than comparable conventional materials.

Winter said that some of the knowledge gained from applying new alternative and sustainable materials will transfer to commercially operating AVs such as roboshuttles and rideshare vehicles, where durability and ease of cleaning are paramount concerns. “First it was just a COVID response,” he said, “but people are just more germ-conscious now."