Engineering Interior Design for Passenger Confidence and Comfort

February 8, 2019 Rachel Pilgren-Kane

As the driver relinquishes responsibility for controlling the vehicle and transitions to a hybrid driver-passenger role, OEMs must create a functional interior that not only provides comfort, but also builds trust.

By William Sokurenko, Director, Automotive, Southco, Inc.

For over a century, virtually all mass-market vehicles—passenger vehicles, trucks, SUVs and crossovers—have been built around a driver controlling the vehicle, hands at 10 and 2, eyes on the road towards the traffic ahead, plus regular glances at rear and side view mirrors and at the instrument panel to make sure their speed isn’t too far over the posted limit. The advent of autonomous (or self-driving) vehicles means that everything society knows about driving a car is about to change.

High-end vehicles already offer an option to ride fully autonomously for long-range highway trips. This is more than just a change in technology: drivers and passengers alike will be adjusting to a new reality, ceding control while gaining the ability to engage in other activities while travelling—whether for 30 minutes or three hours.

As new attitudes, behaviors and activities around AVs begin to develop, new thinking and new technology will be needed in order to change how vehicle interiors are designed, engineered and operated to become more fully aligned with how people change their interactions—and their perceptions—of the automotive experience.

Building passenger confidence and trust

As progress is made in the performance and usability of self-driving vehicle technologies, the automotive interior design community is actively considering how automotive interiors will evolve. What will be modified and what aspects of the interior will remain the same? What new functionalities will be introduced as the roles and usage requirements of the driver and passengers change? And how can interior design features and technologies be used to enhance the comfort, confidence and acceptance of AVs?

Confidence, acceptance, trust—these are all key aspects of passenger psychology. While the technology necessary to deploy fully autonomous vehicles is on the brink of being realized, consumer psychology and passenger trust continue to be roadblocks for the widespread adoption of autonomous automobiles.

As drivers relinquish their responsibility for controlling their vehicles and transition to hybrid driver-passenger roles, designers are presented with the challenge of creating a functional interior that not only provides comfort, but also builds trust and alleviates possible passenger fear.

Opportunities for inspiring passenger trust exist in a vehicle’s interior touch points. From adjustable monitors that relay key trip information to the passenger, to new amenities like stowable tray tables and even bunks, the key is keeping the passenger informed and at ease for the duration of their trip.

A Deloitte survey conducted in 2018 revealed that 47% of the U.S. population would not trust an autonomous vehicle to transport them. The lack of trust on the part of passengers is, in part, a response to the surrender of decision-making from the driver to the AV. Passengers often become anxious when they are unable to anticipate the next move of the vehicle. 

Technology can help to alleviate this anxiety. Transparent heads-up displays (HUDs) within the vehicle can present data and information within the normal line of sight of the passenger. By communicating the vehicle’s upcoming moves– adjustments in speed and lane changes, for instance – at all times to the passenger, the vehicle’s information systems help alleviate passenger fears.

To accommodate differences in passenger height, modular vehicle configurations, and even changes in brightness based on the weather and time of day, HUD display mounts will need to be easily adjustable. Mounting hardware must also be rugged enough to handle the various forces and vibrations encountered when driving at high speeds and on changing terrains.

Position control products, such as hinges with integrated constant torque, can provide a safer and more reliable experience when interacting with HUDs. Hinges and display mounts that are designed with pre-engineered constant torque technology provide a full-range of motion, improving passenger ergonomics and usability.

Robust, tested display mounts like the Southco AV series offer a wide range of capabilities to meet interior equipment mounting needs, including tilt, swivel, swing and dual extension.

With autonomous vehicles, it’s anticipated that there will be an increased number of HUDs and other types of in-vehicle displays throughout the vehicle interior. Using controlled torque hinges for these display mounts offers several functional and user touch point benefits:

  • The ability to withstand vibration and inertial loading that may result while the vehicle is in operation.
  • Displays can be moved in multiple directions and angles, allowing displays to be easily pulled toward or pushed away from the passenger as needed.
  • One-handed operation allows simple one-touch positioning of displays.
  • Reliable, repeatable lifecycle that eliminates the need for service or adjustment during operation.

Engineering new user interfaces

By some estimates, AV drivers will have up to 50 minutes of free time to simply ride in the vehicle as a passenger. This means the cockpit area of the vehicle will provide vehicle interior designers with the opportunity to significantly re-think the form and function of this space.

New, non-traditional interiors reimagine the vehicle without the need for a driver. The steering wheel can be tucked away, with large displays and screens taking up surface areas, and reconfigurable and removable seating options available.

The element where the end user interacts with these devices will be crucial. Everything from materials used, to ease of operation and general appearance, will ultimately shape customer perception of quality towards the automotive manufacturer. This includes engineering the “touch point” characteristics of these devices: how they look, feel and behave as the passenger uses them—how stable they are, how easy they are to deploy and how easily they can be stowed away again.

Comfort and flexibility

A greater range of amenities will be possible: Tray tables and infotainment systems that can be deployed as needed, easier access to USB interfaces for digital devices and HUDs on windshields for live video and Internet feeds that may be deployed to satisfy a wider range of tasks once the driver is freed from controlling the vehicle.

Consider the center console: Its most basic functionality is as an armrest and storage unit. As automotive interior designers consider how to support non-driving tasks, the center console could become a multifunctional device that doubles as a tray table or laptop support.

Intuitive mechanisms with one-touch release, one-handed operation and quick stowaway, for instance, offer the effortless operation that end users desire. These mechanisms extend beyond the AV driver’s cockpit – the front passenger will also make use of these potential center console features, as well as enhancements to glove box functionality.

Secure storage

Ridesharing is increasingly becoming the preferred way for many individuals to use automobiles, either to augment or, in some cases, completely replace personal auto ownership. Ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft are interested in making autonomous vehicles (AVs) an integral part of their operations. There may be opportunities for additional streams of revenue within these vehicles—storage units securing items for sale or personal belongings, for example—so incorporating these features into interior designs will be part of the autonomous vehicle challenge.

Electronic Access Solutions, like Southco’s EA-BTBLUETOOTH®Controller allow Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as a smartphone or tablet, to be used as a credential for wirelessly actuating an electronic lock within a vehicle, to access a glove box or center console for instance.

Ride-sharing fleets may also want to add small beverage coolers outfitted with electronic locks that will open when the passenger makes a purchase via their app. Incorporating electronic access devices – particularly state-of-the-art devices that include features like cloud-based control, verification and usage tracking – into storage units inside these AVs will involve additional cost and engineering time.

Feature density and lightweighting

As the density of application zones multiplies, an additional challenge arises: vehicle weight. Multiplying the number of fixtures could quickly add up to unwanted weight on the vehicle, potentially impact fuel efficiency (for gasoline-and diesel-powered vehicles) or distance between recharges (for electric vehicles).

To add these fixtures, while still maintaining weight goals, they will be using lightweight materials and device designs. However, there’s a risk in selecting lower-cost, lightweight hinges and latches that have a cheap or low-cost touch point experience. In addition, using lower-cost mechanical hardware risks breaking or jamming after only a few years’ use—not the impression today’s automotive OEMs want to make with their vehicle interiors.

Selecting positioning and latching products proven to provide a high-quality touch point experience combined with long-term usability can mitigate this risk. These solutions can help autonomous vehicle designers increase feature density within the interior while helping keep overall vehicle weight within target.

Streamlining the development process

With the automotive industry projecting that vehicles with self-driving capabilities will be ready for the road by the early 2020s, vehicle interior designers are feeling the pressure to hit key deadlines. How can autonomous vehicle design teams engineer, specify and test all the components for these new devices—especially when there are so many other engineering tasks to accomplish to meet impending launch dates?

It is possible to streamline this process by working with suppliers who have proven technology that already supports the user experience required by the next generation of AVs. Leading component suppliers with in-depth automotive interior experience have engineered, tested and deployed a range of flexible mechanisms that can work in multiple application areas. These can include:

  • Position control hinges with constant torque that hold lids, doors and tray tables at any position with one-hand control.
  • Push-to-close latching and dual point latching systems that offer a reliable solution for numerous design challenges within the autonomous interior, and ensure that interior doors and panels remain closed and latched securely when the vehicle in in motion.
  • Electronic access solutions (EAS), like intelligent electronic locks and latches that offer remote and trackable access control and can interface with cloud-based platforms.

Hidden solutions, like Southco’s R4 Rotary Latches feature dependable push-to-close operation and a compact, space-saving design that facilitates interior door mounting.

Collaborating with experienced suppliers offers an added advantage: Their experience in engineering and producing components for automotive interiors can be leveraged by AV design teams to solve bottlenecks and recommend solutions for new fixtures that are being created for the first time for AV interiors. In addition, they often have extensive in-house engineering teams skilled at quickly adapting existing mechanisms to new requirements.

Using technology to enhance acceptance

The notion that is the driver is always in control of an automobile is hardwired into collective experience. As fully autonomous vehicles move closer to deployment, new technology is available to equip AV interiors with systems that will inform passengers of the vehicle’s upcoming moves, helping overcome any concerns or anxieties—conscious or otherwise—about using AVs. The appeal and usefulness of these systems can be enhanced with positioning technology and latching solutions that provide a high-quality touch point experience whenever these devices need to be adjusted to serve evolving passenger needs.

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