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.

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.

The device on the BMW’s concept Vision Next 100 dashboard is actually the steering wheel that opens and closes allowing motorists to switch between autonomous and human driven modes.

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.

Above, the forward-looking exterior of the Acura Precision concept 2016, is balanced by the vehicle’s interior that includes the absence of a b-pillar between the front and back, allowing a cantilever to be installed for the floating rear seats.

One of the more autonomous concepts is the Mercedes-Benz F 015. Measuring just an inch shorter than today’s S-Class sedan, the bubble-shaped prototype is a “forerunner of a mobility revolution,” the German automaker suggests. A human driver can operate the concept vehicle, but it’s loaded with cameras, radar, and other sensors to instantly switch to self-driving mode. Indeed, Mercedes says it envisions a time when some cities might require vehicles to operate autonomously.

“Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society,” says Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board of management at Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars. “The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space.”

Looking a bit like a cross between an S-Class sedan and the bubble car in the 1973 Woody Allen movie, Sleeper, the F 015 has a distinctive, wraparound design. Passengers inside the vehicle can project their own scenery using virtual display technology. The F 015 also uses doors that open a full 90 degrees — with no central, or B-pillar, in the way — to provide easy access.

The lounge-style seats swivel around so passengers can face one another when the vehicle is operating in autonomous mode, and the concept is equipped with an advanced infotainment system linked to the outside world — letting occupants work or play as they might at home or in the office. “Passengers can interact intuitively with the connected vehicle through gestures, eye tracking, or by touching the high-resolution screens,” Zetsche says.

Across the industry, designers and engineers have been spending a lot of time reimagining what’s known as the “man-machine interface.” For example, BMW recently introduced the world’s first hand-gesture system — swipe left or right to answer or reject a call, or rotate your fingers to change the satellite radio volume.

Volkswagen hopes to go even further, as it demonstrated a pair of prototypes at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January. The entries included the BUDD-e concept minivan, a people mover that features a huge video screen mounted on the left side of the passenger compartment that can display a mix of information lifted from passengers’ smartphones and tablets. “This is the first car in the Internet of Things,” says Herbert Diess, a member of the board of management at Volkswagen AG and chairman of the Volkswagen Passenger Cars Brand. “Among other things, the system can link up to a driver’s refrigerator, which might send a message to buy beer — this being a German car — on the way home.”

As for the other vehicle, the eGolf Touch adds an array of connected features as well as two huge, high-res video displays. The Touch is a “logical extension” of what VW has already done with the battery-powered eGolf, says Volkmar Tanneberger, head of VW’s electrical technology department. He says The Touch not only adds more features, but new ways to access them. “The more intelligent and complex the car becomes, the more intuitive it must be,” he says. Gesture and voice controls, as well as virtual knobs and buttons, replace almost every traditional control — with one exception. VW has wisely left a real volume control knob.

The ability to operate autonomously is only one of the reasons why automotive interiors are changing. Faced with tough new emissions and fuel economy standards, automakers are rapidly adopting alternative propulsion systems, from conventional hybrids to pure battery-electric, as well as hydrogen fuel cells. These drivetrains don’t necessarily need to be laid out in the same way as a conventional gasoline or a diesel-powered vehicle, as California-based startup Faraday Future recently demonstrated. During its own CES news conference, the Chinese-owned company rolled out a prototype that used a skateboard-like platform containing all the basic powertrain components, including both the batteries and electric motors.

Toyota has developed a similar concept, the FCV Plus. Its fuel-cell stack is tucked way up front and takes up virtually none of the space above the floor. The hydrogen tanks are similarly sequestered in the rear, and four in-wheel motors drive the FCV Plus. That frees up space normally taken up by the engine compartment. Despite the show car’s compact footprint, it boasts a nearly full-size interior. That would make it even easier to open up space for occupants to face one another — or to add room to stretch out and catch a snooze when operating in autonomous mode.

While autonomous driving and alternative powertrain technologies could offer substantially more freedom to motorists, there are plenty of potential challenges for automotive engineers and designers, says Clay Dean, GM’s in-house design futurist. Unless you’re talking a fully driverless vehicle, “You’ll still have some level of steering control. So, what are you going to do with that steering wheel? Will you have a steer-by-wire system? Will you have an instrument panel?” Even in a fully driverless vehicle, adds Dean, “How do we control airbags if passengers are facing rearward?”

Passengers including the driver in the self-driving Mercedes Benz F015 luxury in motion concept vehicle will gain more free time for relaxing or working while traveling with swivel seats and windows that also function as screens.

Passenger cars, incidentally, aren’t the only vehicles likely to go autonomous. In May 2015, Freightliner became the first manufacturer to be licensed by the state of Nevada to test heavy trucks on public roads. For now, the company sees the technology being aimed at assisting human drivers.

But in the long term, it may be common to have trucks driving cross-country entirely without drivers, Dean says. They “may not have any interior at all, not even seats,” he says. “They may just have a box on wheels that can take my goods where I need them to go.”

Whether the public will feel comfortable with the idea of 70,000-pound trucks roaming the freeways with no one behind the wheel is far from certain. Indeed, according to a AAA study released in March, three-quarters of Americans said they would be “afraid” to ride in an autonomous vehicle, yet nearly two-thirds also say they want some of the basic technologies needed to make self-driving cars work, like forward-collision warning and emergency auto braking.

If anything, familiarity brings comfort, or so proponents of self-driving technology hope.

While concept vehicles like the BMW Vision Next 100 and Mercedes F 015 might seem a stretch today, they’re no longer the stuff of science fiction. “If, as a designer, you’re able to imagine something, there’s a good chance it could one day become reality,” says BMW design chief van Hooydonk. Make that one day quite soon.