- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2001

I've recently gotten a glimpse inside the studios that design interiors of cars and trucks. One thing is certain: Interiors in the future will be far different from what they are today.

Vehicle interiors where drivers spend more time than ever are the current focus of automakers' attention. "Until now, vehicle interiors have been the unsung hero of the car," said Ralph Gilles, lead interior designer for the new Jeep Liberty.

In my visits to the design studios, certain trends for the next decade have emerged. Drivers will have vast choice. Some future models will offer buyers so much choice that no two interiors will be identical. Already, Audi has experimented with customized interiors in its A6 sedan. Buyers choose one of three interiors that cost the same but have different personalities. "The idea of 'equal but different' in interiors will spread," said John Hartnell, Ford's director of color and trim.

Once buyers select an interior, they will be able to customize it. Each driver in the family, for instance, might be able to change the colors and fonts of the gauges. Or, drivers can choose to see or not see the gauges at all, using voice commands. A driver won't have to live with the same interior throughout the vehicle's life either. Already, owners of Mercedes-Benz's Smart car in Europe can return to the dealership and request new exterior panels and interior trim.

Along the same line, drivers will be able to upgrade the vehicle's electronics when new technology, such as MP3 music players, becomes available. The "plug and play" idea will expand from automotive electronics to other interior components, such as seats and trims.

Young motorists, in particular, will lead the move to mix and match brands in their cars as they do today in their computers, noted Pat Murray, vice president of the technology and design division of Lear Corp., an interior supplier based in Southfield, Mich. "They buy an Apple computer. Then they buy a monitor, a CD-ROM and other peripherals from other companies. Unfortunately, those options aren't there for them yet in the automotive world right now." In the future, however, dealerships will become "personalization centers" where motorists will buy accessories to upgrade their vehicles.

Future vehicles will have more room inside for passengers and storage as well as taller roof lines, which will make them more spacious inside and will include storage compartments and electronics to be installed in the ceiling. "We're literally looking at every inch of the vehicle creatively to figure out how we can give the customer more storage," said John Phillips, Lear's director of advanced product development.

More efficient use of interior space is a top priority of designers. "We are rethinking the entire interior," acknowledged Peter Davis, who heads General Motors' interior design in Detroit. Mechanical items, such as a vehicle's climate control which consumes up to a third of the instrument panel's precious space will be moved to less crowded locations, possibly underneath the floor, for instance.

The conversion of mechanical components to electronic also will create more space. BMW already has dispensed with the gearshift in its new 7-Series, opting instead for a shift-by-wire system. Steer-by-wire, which eliminates the need for a steering column, will be next. Added space will allow different approaches to furnishing the vehicle interior. For example, designers are rethinking how seats are made and positioned. Lear is experimenting with seats that use webbing instead of foam to free space underneath the seats. Johnson Controls developed a concept interior that divides a luxury car into workspace and relaxing space.

Future vehicles will have a vast array of telematics. Designers agree that BMW's iDrive system in the new 7-Series is a sign of things to come. Audi has developed its own version of the technology, called MMI. Both systems allow the motorist to adjust the stereo, telephone and telematics using one set of controls and a menu of commands.

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