Sneak peek into concept interiors for driverless cars

BMW's show car at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
BMW's show car at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.PHOTO: BMW GROUP

DETROIT • Swivelling seats? Movies projected across the windshield? Social media feeds on the windows?

As driverless car technology develops, companies, design institutes and researchers are asking the question: What does the car of the future look like inside?

With companies such as Google, Uber and others racing to develop fully autonomous vehicles, the era of the driver hunched over the steering wheel may give way to a living room on wheels.

Mr Hakan Kostepen, executive director for strategy and innovation at Panasonic's automotive systems unit, said: "When people are in an autonomous vehicle, their expectations will shift. They will want their personal space to become one of smart mobility, connecting them with relevant information to act on."

When cars are fully autonomous, how people sit, inform and entertain will be up for grabs.

If steering wheels are no longer needed, how do designers best configure seating positions? What should be done with the space now occupied by a dashboard once a vehicle handles all driving tasks?

Those are all challenges being taken up by the automotive industry and schools that come up with the next generation of designers.

At ArtCentre College of Design in Los Angeles - one of the world's premier automotive design schools - 14 students recently worked on creating new concepts for a future vehicle interior.

The proposals, which were reviewed by executives from carmaker BMW, electronics firm Nvidia and IBM's Watson artificial intelligence division, varied wildly.

In one concept, social media feeds were displayed on the windows and an all-glass roof, creating what is known as an augmented reality projection, providing contextual information on passing landmarks and approaching sights.

As the vehicle drove by a restaurant, reviews of the eatery would be displayed and an online reservation form would appear on the building.

Video games would be integrated into the passing environment. Players could fire "weapons" at buildings and, via a projection on the glass, see the structure go up in digital flames.

Another group envisioned a vehicle's interior as a changing environment, using variable lighting and temperature to fit the evolving moods and desires of each occupant, as determined through a sensor analysis.

A third proposal contemplated the use of virtual reality and motion-sensing seats to give occupants the feeling of driving a sports car, even when they were simply riding in a tame autonomous vehicle.

The concepts are not wholly pie in the sky - graduates of the ArtCentre have gone on to design vehicles such as BMW's i3 electric car and Tesla's Model S.

Still, they are a step beyond what is being developed by vehicle manufacturers and suppliers, which must take cost, brand reputation and consumer acceptance into account.

Panasonic is considering ideas such as altering a vehicle's internal lighting, depending on occupants' moods or letting a child passenger initiate a search to find a parking spot.

Like students at the ArtCentre, Panasonic is also looking at using the windshield as an overlay for additional information or advertisements.

BMW is experimenting with keeping instruments at a low height.

When necessary, the "driver" or responsible party would interact with controls through a holographic projection that would appear to hover closer to eye level in space, meaning they would not need to take their eyes off the road while adjusting the temperature or changing radio stations.

When the vehicle is in fully autonomous mode, the windshield could be turned into a wide-screen display, allowing passengers to watch a movie. Theatre-like seats would vibrate in sync with sound effects.

In an autonomous vehicle, "we can push technology into the background and make it present when it is needed", said Mr Holger Hampf, BMW's head for user experience.

One thing the carmaker does not envision: swivelling, rear-facing seats. "When you reverse the seats, you can induce motion sickness," said Mr Hampf.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2017, with the headline 'Sneak peek into concept interiors for driverless cars'. Print Edition | Subscribe