Tech Innovation

Autonomous Cars Spark an Evolution in Interior Car Design

Deb Miller Landau iQ Managing Editor

On the autobahn to autonomous cars, experts from BMW, Carnegie Mellon University and Intel examine how autonomous cars are sparking innovation in interior car design, and helping drive a $7 trillion passenger economy.

In the not-too-distant future, cars will become autonomous, fully functional vehicles that will operate without a driver. This will radically transform how people get from A to B, sparking a “passenger economy” fueled by creature comforts not yet found in today’s top-of-line luxury cars. When no one needs to be in the driver seat, what will cars of the future look like?

The oncoming autonomous car revolution is driving researchers to reshape the inside of cars to be more like living rooms, offices or sleeping pods.

“We love our cars because they are emotional possessions,” said Hans-Joachim Faulstroh, head of Interior, HMI and User Experience at BMW Research in Munich, Germany. Faulstroh and his team study human-machine interface (HMI), examining the relationships people have with their cars.

“We have a deep relationship with them,” said Faulstroh. “We take care of them and they take care of us.”

The BMW i Inside Future sculpture shows an example of what cars of the future might look like. Books are tucked into shelves, the front seats swivel all the way around and have their own audio systems – the person in the front seat could be listening to Beethoven, while the person in the back seat rocks out to Black Sabbath.

The car controls – including the temperature, music and connecting to incoming calls – are managed via BMW HoloActive Touch, a floating hologram that is accessible from anywhere in the car.

“BMW HoloActive Touch is a kind of switch system for the future,” said Faulstroh.

He explained that when a phone call comes in, the “driver” sees a floating image of the caller’s face hovering in the air.

inside BMW world headquarters
BMW’s world headquarters in Munich, Germany.

“It’s not located in the cockpit like it is today. It’s more free-floating so you can access it even if you’re not looking forward.”

Faulstroh said BMWs of the future will have different modes. Drivers could put the car of the future in “ease mode,” where the driver might opt to take a nap on a long, boring stretch of road. But when drivers want to regain control and feel the joy of driving on a twisty turny route through a forest, they could choose “boost mode,” which puts them firmly back in the driver’s seat.

“The car interior of the future is your living space,” said Faulstroh. “It opens up dramatically new possibilities.”

Are We There Yet?

The technology inside autonomous vehicles may be new, but the dream of self-driving vehicles has been around for a while, said Dr. Stan Caldwell, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and executive director of CMU’s Traffic21 Institute, which is devoted to developing smart transportation systems.

Hans-Joachim Faulstroh of BMW
BMW’s Hans-Joachim Faulstroh believes autonomous car interiors will evolve into modern living spaces.

“It was at the 1939 World’s Fair that General Motors announced its vision for the first autonomous vehicle,” said Caldwell. GM’s original idea for driverless cars was that they would navigate streets paved with electromagnetic strips, like trains riding on rails.

“It wasn’t very long after that we began thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to actually operate them?’”

Caldwell says the big commercial push for autonomous vehicles began in 2009 when Google hired DARPA Grand Challenge alumni to develop the first publicly available driverless car by 2020. Its fleet of Waymo driverless cars has since logged more than 3 million self-driven miles on public roads.

[Related: Waymo and Intel Collaborate on Self-Driving Car Technology]

“I think we’ll look back one day and say, ‘When did we stop driving?’ and not really know,” Caldwell said. “It’s going to happen gradually as the technology becomes less expensive and more publicly accepted.”

That’s what happened with cellphones, computers and traditional automobiles. People didn’t immediately get rid of their typewriters, landlines or horse-drawn carriages — they adopted their replacements incrementally until one day it was hard to imagine a world without them.

BMW interior car design
BMW is exploring the personal relationship between people and their cars.

Establishing Trust, Sparking Passenger Economy

A survey conducted by the Consumer Technology Association found that 70 percent of respondents are interested in testing a driverless car, and 62 percent would replace their existing vehicle with a self-driving alternative.

However, another AAA study found that 78 percent of Americans are afraid to ride in self-driving cars.

It all comes down to trust, according to Jack Weast, chief systems architect for Intel’s Autonomous Driving Group. Intel’s vision for autonomous driving is creating an entire end-to-end ecosystem — from entertainment and sensor systems, to network connectivity and big data management.

“We might be able to build the perfect car from a technology standpoint — and it could drive perfectly and keep you safe all of the time,” said Weast. “But if we don’t feel psychologically safe, then we’re not going to use the service or buy one of these cars.”

Weast believes that with the advent of autonomous cars, people will focus more intently on how the car interior looks and feels. Everything from the interior design to the software systems will become much more important.

Jack Weast of Intel
Intel’s Jack Weast researches how interior car design can increase the trust of passengers in autonomous cars.

“Today, if you don’t like the look of the exterior of a car, you’re probably not even going to look inside,” said Weast. “But that might get turned completely around when the interior becomes a work space or living space.”

Findings from a recent study from Intel and analyst firm Strategy Analytics explores the yet-to-be-realized economic potential when today’s drivers become idle passengers. The study predicts that the “passenger economy” will usurp the “sharing economy” and see an explosive economic trajectory growing from $800 billion in 2035 to $7 trillion by 2050.

At BMW, Faulstroh said the commitment to the “ultimate driving machine” hasn’t wavered. Instead, it’s getting more personalized.

“You are the ultimate driver in a BMW,” he said. “We’re just helping you get the best of both worlds.”


Matt Alderton contributed to this story. 

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