Auto makers rethink the car with swivel seats, self-cleaning buttons and window art

Hyundai, Volvo and others have designed concepts that reinvent the interior of the automobile and how its passengers experience the ride

When Bertha Benz, wife and business partner of German inventor Karl Benz, took the first long-distance ride in an automobile, her husband’s newly patented motorcar, one August day in 1888, it was little more than a horse-drawn carriage with an engine.

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That has been mostly the case for the past 132 years. It’s about to change.

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The space inside the car that is designed for its operator and passengers is built around the mechanical requirements of the car’s engine, transmission and other components. The seating still resembles a coach, though more comfortable, and the engine is more powerful.

“Over the last 100 years you can’t really say the car was designed around the people; they got what space was left over,” says Adrian van Hooydonk, 56, the chief designer for Bayerische Motoren Werke AG .

As the auto industry contemplates the impact of technology—from electric cars, internet connectivity, and ultimately vehicles that drive themselves—designers are reinventing the interior of the automobile and how its passengers experience the ride. One doesn’t have to imagine some fantastic future with Jetsons-like inventions zipping around on the ground and in the air because the future is already on the drawing boards of car makers today.

And while it is too soon to say how the Covid-19 pandemic will affect car interiors in the future, designers think there is more emphasis now on cars as a safe space.

A woman looks into the self driving concept car Rinspeed Oasis at a preview of the Motor Show in Essen, Germany, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Last month, Hyundai Motors took the wraps off its latest concept car, simply dubbed 45, an all-electric vehicle with swivel front seats. The doors slide open to reveal a spacious interior with clean, simple lines.

“It’s all about the soothing, relaxing environment just for you,” SangYup Lee, design chief for Hyundai Motors, says in a video presentation of the new 45 concept vehicle, describing the calming effect of the lemon-colored light that illuminates the interior “almost as if you’re sitting in a Jacuzzi.”

A concept car is a prototype, an actual car built to show off what the industry can do and where it thinks the future of its vehicles is headed. While the exact concept may not be built, the technology will eventually be integrated into cars designed for series production.

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Some of the features of the 45, such as more comfortable seats that recline and swivel, could be in models two to three years from now. With more electric cars on the road, such features become important to provide comfort for drivers and passengers enduring long charging times.

Designs that completely transform the car’s interior into a working or relaxing space can only be realized once fully autonomous vehicles are on the road. Cars with retractable steering wheels, or seats that swivel so the driver can face the other passengers while the car’s robot drives are on the drawing board today, but not possible yet. The self-driving hype of the past few years has given way to the sober reality that it will take longer to develop and deploy. And the coronavirus pandemic has put some of the investment by auto makers on hold.

“Autonomous vehicles are going to be the real game-changer that will bring new ways of using the cars and new business models,” says Frank Rinderknecht, 64, founder and CEO of Rinspeed Inc., a Swiss designer of concept vehicles and automotive consulting firm.

Rinspeed has developed a series of prototypes dubbed Oasis to demonstrate a new idea about modular design that can be applied to a range of vehicles. Rinspeed describes the Oasis concept, first presented at car shows a few years ago, as a “sanctuary on wheels.” It includes a lounge atmosphere, with seats that swivel so passengers can face each other when the car’s autonomous driver takes the wheel.

“Oasis will only happen when we have autonomous vehicles,” says Mr. Rinderknecht. “It’s going to be five or 10 years before we see any implementation of self-driving cars.”

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Mr. van Hooydonk says BMW is thinking beyond the dashboard, to when the windows become the display, even more so than today’s “head-up” display, in which dashboard information such as speed, mileage or the charge left on the electric car’s battery is projected onto the windshield at eye level, allowing the driver to see it without taking his or her eyes off the road.

“If you draw the analogy between the car interior and your living room, you may want digital art. If the car becomes so intelligent that it drives autonomously you have time for other things,” he says.

Behind such concepts is the belief that the car will become what the industry calls a “third space,” a link between the time spent in the office and at home, a place where people will be able in the future to use the same digital services in the car that they now use at home. For designers, it means creating a space inside the car that enhances that experience.

“When you get rid of dials and use head-up display you can do a lot with that space. But it’s when you get rid of the steering column that things really open up,” says Lisa Reeves, 39, Volvo Cars director of interior program design.

Volvo, the Swedish car maker owned by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, is developing a model that could be tailored to drivers’ needs, just as trucks and delivery vans are today.

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Ms. Reeves said when the company began thinking about designing self-driving cars, they developed a concept car called the 360c, which has four specific layouts: the office, the living room, the party car and the sleeping car.

“It was a really cool concept,” says Ms. Reeves. “You ordered a room when you configured the car on your device. It really allows a person to have their own space.”

Today, Volvo is building cars for Uber Technologies Inc. that the ride-hailing service can adapt with its own software and features. Volvo also had this business model in mind when developing its 360c project.

The office car would have an interactive table that automatically links the car’s computer to your smartphone when the phone is placed on the table.

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Volvo’s sleeping car concept is more reminiscent of a first-class airplane cabin than a motor-powered buggy that Bertha Benz drove or even a Mercedes-Benz S-Class today. A comfortable lounge setting, the interior can be converted into a sleeping car for a long commute or shuttle to a distant meeting.

“With the sleeping car the idea was to rival domestic air travel,” says Ms. Reeves. “It would pick you up at your door and was designed around ride-hailing concepts.”

Even before the pandemic, the horizon for fully self-driving cars on public highways in the hands of ordinary drivers had been pushed out. The global economic toll from the coronavirus has forced many industries to retrench, and may mean that car makers will prioritize cost-cutting over near-term development of windows as art installations.

That said, Covid-19 may reorder which advances come first. Smart surfaces, with materials that would replace the dials and buttons on the dashboard as input devices, could be self-cleaning. Such a function could be essential for car-sharing and ride-hailing vehicles used by many people.

“All these new functionalities in the car are very nice, but if they can repair themselves that really adds value”

- Eva Garcia Lecina, director of surface engineering research at Cidetec, a research institute

Eva Garcia Lecina, director of surface engineering research at Cidetec, a research institute in San Sebastian, Spain, says in the future surfaces in car interiors will become more intelligent.

Cidetec is working on coatings that contain sensors to create digitized surfaces that can send information to the vehicle’s computer to inform it to take action, to set off an alarm if there is a security issue or to alert the car of a malfunction or change of the environment.

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Car makers are keen to use smart coatings that repel fingerprints on display screens, or repel dyes that can stain expensive interiors. Another area of research is into self-healing surfaces—like the robot in the Terminator movie that can heal itself and change shape.

“All these new functionalities in the car are very nice, but if they can repair themselves that really adds value,” Ms. Garcia says.