Have Office, Will Travel

As autonomous vehicles enter the realm of reality, designers and engineers are creating car interiors for hosting business meetings and boost entertainment offerings.


The BMW’s concept Vision Next 100 is equipped with large wheels, gull-wing doors, and an aerodynamic layout.

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Don’t go looking for BMW’s Vision Next 100 — the concept vehicle designed to help celebrate the Bavarian automaker’s 100th anniversary — at a local dealer, at least not anytime soon. The car, which is a fantasy in chrome, offers a glimpse of the dramatic changes that are rapidly reshaping both automobiles and the automotive industry.

The BMW Vision has almost a video-game look to it, with an almost pixilated pattern that highlights the bold wheel arches. The prototype is meant to illustrate a variety of trends, including advanced aerodynamics. The wheel wells, for example, are covered in a stretchable fabric-like material, and the entire body can stretch slightly to cheat the wind at higher speeds.

But it’s inside the Vision where the automaker has positioned the biggest surprises. While BMW bills itself as the manufacturer of the “ultimate driving machine,” with the flick of a switch a driver can shift to “Ease Mode,” or autonomous driving. From there, the yoke-like steering wheel folds into the instrument panel and the front seats swivel around to transform the cabin into a rolling living room.

“Our objective was to develop a future scenario that people would engage with,” says Adrian van Hooydonk, design director of the BMW Group. “Technology is going to make significant advances and open up fantastic new possibilities that will allow us to offer the driver even more assistance for an even more intense driving experience.” 

Long the stuff of science fiction, the self-driving automobile is expected to become a routine part of our everyday world. For example, Google, working with Roush Industries Inc. in Livonia, is rolling out a fleet of 100 bubble-shaped prototypes it’s testing on public roads in California and Texas, and it’s looking for partners who might want to put its autonomous system into production.

Yet it’s by no means alone in the endeavor. Indeed, it’s difficult to find a single automaker that isn’t working on similar technology. Ford Motor Co. and other manufacturers are using the new M-City campus, a simulated urban test bed in Ann Arbor, to drive advances in autonomous driving. Earlier this year, it also began testing vehicles near its new tech center in Silicon Valley.

General Motors Co., meanwhile, recently acquired California-based Cruise Automation, which develops self-driving software, to propel its own autonomous vehicle program into high gear. At the same time, Tesla’s new Model S sedan and Model X SUV offer a semiautonomous system capable of operating hands-free on limited-access highways. Cadillac will introduce something similar, dubbed Super Drive, in 2017, while Nissan is promising to put its first fully autonomous vehicle into production by 2020.


A new report by IHS Automotive, a data analytics firm in Southfield, projects 300,000 self-driving vehicles will be sold in 2025 — a figure it expects to grow to 21 million global models a decade later (vehicles that can be switched in and out of autonomous mode). By 2035, IHS forecasts that as many as 10 million more driverless cars will hit the road.

Safety proponents such as Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are anxious to see the new technology gain traction. Federal data reveals that more than 90 percent of all traffic fatalities are the result of driver error, and NHTSA — as well as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, among others — believe self-driving vehicles could all but eliminate highway deaths.

The advent of autonomous driving is likely to bring some radical changes in both the type of cars we drive and the way we drive. “We’re trying to understand what the customer will want,” says Rüdiger Müller, a senior designer with Audi, which is working on autonomous technology.

The interior seats rotate to face each other for meetings or conversation.

At least initially, federal and state regulations are expected to require an “operator” to remain behind the wheel, ready to assume command in the event of a problem. But the long-term goal, at least among proponents like Google, is to eliminate the driver entirely. Some of the later “Google Car” prototypes are expected to be equipped with nothing but an emergency stop button.

The question is, will occupants want to sit back passively in an interior much like today’s vehicles, or will they seek an environment completely different from anything now on the road? “People will put up with traffic if they can relax and do other things,” says Jon Ikeda, a designer by trade who is vice president and general manager of the Acura division of American Honda Motor Co. “Interiors are going to become incredibly different.”

Ikeda’s team offered one possible vision of the future in the form of the Acura Precision Concept introduced at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The striking exterior was complemented by a sleek, high-tech interior. The centerpiece was a curved central video display that could provide driver data as well as entertainment offerings.

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