Inside the Cocoon: What to Expect from Automated-Vehicle Interiors

An exploration of what life will be like when you don't need to drive.

We don't know when the autonomous-vehicle revolution will start, how it will look, or what to expect—apart from a tangled mess of red tape and legalese—but we know it will inspire change, like any worthwhile revolution. In the case of the automotive interior, it's not difficult to imagine the metamorphosis it will soon undergo will be its most dramatic since inception.

"The traditional automotive interior is built around the driver and the steering wheel for the best possible control and view of the vehicle's surroundings," says Klaus Bischoff, Volkswagen's executive director of design. "The autonomous interior, however, is based on the passenger's needs. The autonomous interior gives passengers time to do what they want while getting where they want to go."

Manufacturers and suppliers are on the scent, early in development of basic passenger cocoons that coddle and encourage free play. No idea is too perverse, audacious, or unrealistic, and no one knows what will stick. Some manufacturers refuse to comment on the subject at all because they see no point in discussing something in such flux. Others are less timid, wandering eagerly through undefined space as they engineer solutions to never-before-seen problems posed by the six graduated levels of automated driving that range from Level 0 to 5.

Infiniti's design boss Karim Habib believes the first step toward the ideal autonomous interior is simplification: strip away excess to create a warm, minimalistic space.

As the revolution arrives in stages, so will aspects of the next-generation interior, first in semi-autonomous vehicles that don't appear all that different from today's automobiles. They drive among us even now: Cadillacs with Super Cruise, Mercedes-Benzes with Drive Pilot, Teslas with Autopilot, and Volvos with Pilot Assist offer stints of autonomous driving with occasional human inputs. Tesla designed its Model 3 from the outset to be an "open, liberating space" with fewer physical buttons and controls so it would be upgradeable and hopefully avoid obsolescence in an autonomous world.

All semi-autonomous cars require means by which to steer. A number of automakers have released concept cars with retractable steering wheels that automatically fold up and store themselves during autonomous driving scenarios, freeing up precious interior space. Mercedes' director of interior design, Hartmut Sinkwitz, wonders if we need a steering wheel at all. "Maybe we only need a joystick or something that gives you a perfect interaction to really conduct or to really steer and control the car," he says. "Just yesterday I was test-driving a car with joysticks and enjoyed it very, very much."

We'll control whatever steering appendage from the comfort of a three-axis seat that twists and slides through the cabin to support both active driving and autonomous relaxation. The seats might articulate, according to Motivo Engineering, a Southern California-based product design and engineering firm. A fabric skin will stretch over a "flexible skeleton," and the seats will shapeshift depending on use. Domagoj Dukec, head of design for BMW i and M, says the movable seat won't debut until the "seat belt issue" is resolved: Will cars be so predictably safe that there's no need to buckle up? "We'd need a highly intelligent airbag system that will know immediately how each individual passenger is sitting at that particular moment," he says. "The foldaway steering wheel tech will be the extent of things for the time being."

Infiniti's design boss Karim Habib believes the first step toward the ideal autonomous interior is simplification: strip away excess to create a warm, minimalistic space. He also believes black slabs of touchscreen will be difficult to interact with in the changing interior of a self-driving car and that screens have to "be much more organic, blend into the environment—actually have the screen adapt to the space and be used in the space." Some screens will be subtle, like Continental Corporation's "see-through" A-pillar concept, which wraps bendable OLED screens around a car's roof pillars to reveal, via camera, whatever occupies the not-so-blind spot.

Other screens will be less subtle. "Energized glass coupled with augmented reality opens up new opportunities for connection," says Chris Rockwell, founder and CEO of Lextant, a user-experience and design consultancy. "Imagine the windscreen becoming a window to the world. You drive through a new city, see where relevant services are located, get information on history and culture, and then use virtual-reality services to tour the sites en route."

The keystone of any successful semi- or fully autonomous interior will be a seamlessly integrated user interface (UI), i.e., non-sentient artificial intelligence (AI) working in conjunction with finely tuned voice and gesture controls. Without a thoughtfully developed, intuitive system for two-way, human-to-machine conversation, there will be no relationship, no trust. User-experience (UX) designers research potential customers to better understand and empathize wants and whims in hopes of breathing life into a UI that understands routines, habits, emotions, and desires.

"The interior of the future needs to be about psychology as much as technology," Rockwell says. "The goal is for the experience as a whole to not only meet needs but to anticipate them, inspiring connection, collaboration, and relaxation." But the hardware and software developed for autonomy will go to waste if an interior can't sympathize with its occupants, who will likely be understandably wary of the "ghost" driver.

That trust won't come easily, but Tim Shih, vice president of design for Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, believes the transitional period preceding full automation will be surprisingly short because vehicles built to accommodate both driving and non-driving scenarios will inherently compromise both.

With the mass adoption of Level 5 automation, expect to see a shift from traditional interior to living environment, where higher roofs allow more fluid movement, consoles rearrange on the go, and automatic lighting reflects the mood; an integrated sensor pack will monitor your temperature, heart rate, actions, and more, and share that information with the AI. "The manufacturer may choose to provide more of a blank canvas than a beautiful completed painting," Shih says, "and the passengers and users could then determine what happens in this space as much as—if not more so than—the manufacturer themselves."

That blank canvas will be most common because fully autonomous vehicles will generally be of the shared-use variety and need to accommodate many different people and their varied interests. Trying to imagine all possible uses and adaptations is an overwhelming exercise, which is why manufacturers typically group predicted actions into broad, wide-reaching categories. General Motors considers three areas of use: productivity (email, work), relaxation (read a book, take a nap), and social (interacting with the vehicle or other individuals). Volvo adopted a similar approach for its 360c concept, an autonomous pod built for four scenarios: living room, office, party, and sleeper. The autonomous cabin will amplify whatever parts of life accompany you into it, becoming a spa-like oasis after work, a rolling wet bar for a party on the move, or a bottomless media trough.

Humans stream 500 million hours of YouTube content every day. "It's clear that users will continue this behavior in their autonomous vehicles' personal space," despite voiced desires to relax or work while not driving, says Jose Wyszogrod, chief designer of interior styling and UX/UI for Honda R&D Americas. If he's right, hungry advertisers and content providers will find a way to stream nonstop ads and entertainment to insatiable passengers, who will blindly agree to "all terms and conditions" as they do today.

An interior uncorrupted by greedy perversions sounds much nicer, if we let ourselves have it. Wyszogrod sees it as a social space that a wanderlust generation uses for learning and discovery. Sofia Lewandowski, interior and UX designer at Hanseatische Fahrzeug Manufaktur GmbH in Berlin, sees an interior that celebrates connectedness and equality and brings new freedoms to individuals with limited mobility. "We all age into disabilities," she says. "Designing for the disabled is including all."

Hungry advertisers and content providers will find a way to stream nonstop ads and entertainment to insatiable passengers, who will blindly agree to "all terms and conditions" as they do today.

Mercedes-Benz's Sinkwitz sees handcrafted woodwork and luminous metals that remind occupants of the analog world they left behind, and ArtCenter College of Design student Santiago Diaz thinks augmented and virtual reality will be digital veils that help us interact with cars in ways we can't yet fathom, if you can stomach the motion sickness.

"I think we're going to discover a lot of that, the fact that you have glass around you, showing things whizzing by you," Infiniti's Habib says. Maybe windows will be replaced by energized glass, projecting images of the outside world via a 360-degree camera, darkening to opaque when you ask.

Autonomy faces a lot of these odd obstacles. Gesture control, for example, will be a building block of the interior, but it won't be intuitive to use if you're traveling abroad because different countries use different body language. But right now no one really cares about those obstacles because autonomy has much bigger issues to overcome and a lot of tough questions in need of good answers sooner rather than later.

For instance, how do we protect personal privacy in a complex, hyperconnected world? Will there be global compatibility between competing digital devices, and will in-vehicle Wi-Fi and other entertainment outlets require paid subscriptions separate from what you already have and pay for in your home? Will seat belts indeed be nixed, and who's at fault if your autonomous car causes a crash? Will politicians embrace or smother autonomy? The list of unknowns that must be dealt with is exhaustive.

"Legislation regarding liability, unconventional seating positions, and alternative-use cases are frequently being discussed but not yet defined on paper," Yanfeng's Shih says. "Designers and manufacturers are operating in a gray zone between legislation and speculation. This ambiguity has given designers greater latitude and, from the creativity standpoint, has already unleashed refreshing new thoughts and philosophies around the automotive interior."

Today, freethinkers unconcerned with convention can disrupt and inspire and be wrong without any real consequence because maybe their dream becomes a reality in the new automotive era. "It's fantastic to be able to think that our generation could really be the one that changes the way you live in a product that's more than 100 years old," Habib says, "but it's daunting, definitely. There's a big chance of failure with all the startups and all the established companies creating new things. Some are going to win, and some are going to lose."

Motivo Engineering CEO Praveen Penmetsa says the company that delivers the most engaging mobility experience will rule the automotive world. "However, we don't know what that secret combination is yet," he is quick to point out. "The interior of the automobile will dominate our lives and will be our work desk, play space, creative blank sheet. The car will be more integral than ever before, not less like some people are saying. We'll work more in cars, have more fun, and will have more life experiences in a car than we could have ever imagined."