Interior suppliers show visions of the driverless car cockpit

on Sep16

In Faurecia’s cockpit concept, the dashboard is free of knobs and buttons.

FRANKFURT — When automakers introduce self-driving vehicles over the next decade, drivers may feel like Captain Kirk on the starship Enterprise.

All controls will be mounted on the driver’s armrest. No dashboard knobs and buttons, no center-console controls and perhaps not even a storage bin between the front seats.

At last week’s Frankfurt auto show, two global seat makers — Adient and Faurecia — each unveiled cockpit concepts for self-driving cars, and the visions indicate an emerging consensus about the way drivers will control their vehicles.

Koller: Faurecia can’t do it alone.

They also agree that suppliers will have to reinvent virtually every major component in the cockpit, including the steering wheel, climate control, airbags and audio system.

To do that, the two have formed rival alliances.

Faurecia, the world’s third-largest seat maker, is working with ZF to design airbags and seat belts. Adient, the No. 1 global seat supplier, has formed partnerships with Yanfeng and Autoliv.

“We would not have been able to do this alone,” Faurecia CEO Patrick Koller said during a press conference last week. “We have to think about ecosystems.”

At the show, Faurecia revealed the first fruits of its partnership with ZF: a driver’s seat called the Advanced Versatile Structure.

Since the front seats can swivel and retract, the seat belts are anchored to the seats rather than the B-pillars. Airbags are embedded on each side of the seats, and the seat backs house rainbow-shaped bags for the rear passengers.

For frontal protection, automakers likely would add a curtain that deploys from the roof, plus two-stage airbags in the dash. After an in-cabin camera pinpoints the front passengers’ positions, the two-stage airbags would deploy accordingly.

The result: a protective cocoon for each occupant.

Calling Captain Kirk? Adient’s seat locates all controls on the armrest. Without a center console, the seat can swivel up to 15 degrees.

Less stuff, less storage

What will future cockpits look like?

Some ideas that 2 seating giants are brainstorming

  • Center-console controls disappear
  • Cabin controls are on driver’s armrest
  • Seats swivel and move from front to rear
  • Center storage bins disappear
  • Airbags are embedded in seats
  • Seat belts are anchored to seats, not vehicle body
  • Rear seats retract to create sitting area for driver and passenger

Like Faurecia, Adient locates all controls on the driver’s armrest, and it dispenses with a center console. That allows the driver and front passenger to swivel up to 15 degrees.

Adient went one step further, showing separate concept interiors for Uber-style robo-taxis and privately owned vehicles. Adient’s envisioned private vehicle — dubbed AI 17 — has a standard four-seat layout, while the robo-taxi, called AI 18, is optimized for two people.

The rear bench seat can stow itself, allowing the driver’s seat to slide all the way to the rear. The front passenger seat could then swivel 180 degrees to allow driver and passenger to chat face to face.

“Eighty-five percent of the time, there are only one or two people in the car,” said Richard Chung, Adient’s vice president of global design. “We are catering to that.”

Chung says robo-taxis wouldn’t need storage bins because passengers would carry their own gear — as in a conventional taxi.

One-stop shopping?

The rival alliances are promoting their ability to design complete interiors. But will automakers go for it?

Koller says Chinese automakers, Silicon Valley startups and other automotive newcomers will be eager to hand off interior integration to suppliers.

Chung: No bins in robo-taxis

Chung isn’t so sure. He says automakers may prefer a conventional “buffet” strategy, picking and choosing components from a variety of vendors.

But Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing fleets could upset industry tradition, said analyst Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant, a consulting firm based in Chicago.

Because those vehicles will be in constant use, “items like seats, flooring and other interior components will wear out faster and need to be swapped out,” Abuelsamid said via email.

Moreover, fleet owners might prefer removable interiors that could be swapped out to optimize the vehicle for taxi service, delivery vans, mobile offices or even party wagons.

“The possibilities are limitless,” said Abuelsamid, “and they are definitely enabled by a supplier that can handle the integration.”

One-stop shopping would not necessarily mean that Faurecia’s alliance would produce all components, said ZF chief Stefan Sommer during a briefing with reporters last week. But the alliance could more easily optimize a vehicle’s interior before its design is frozen.

Given the complexity of self- driving vehicles, that may be an attractive proposition.

Said Sommer: “That’s clearly the way we want to go.”

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