Automotive interiors is an awfully complex business.
I couldn’t help but draw that rather simplistic conclusion listening to speakers and chatting with attendees at this month’s Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference, and results from a recent study on supplier-auto maker relationships back that up.
Everyone is talking about incorporating more electronic features into car interiors, but to do that engineers have to solve driver-distraction hurdles, meet stringent cost targets and determine how to cram all that content behind the dash and into the center console, conference speakers pointed out.
Even that won’t be enough. Consumers want to bring in their portable electronics, and they’ll expect them to work seamlessly and safely with the vehicle’s onboard systems.
Jeff Rodgers, lead engineer-interior systems for Inteva Products, predicts that within the next few years, it will be common to see young children toting around tablet computers everywhere they go.
“You can buy three iPads for the cost of a $1,500 (DVD player) option in a car,” he points out, suggesting new-vehicle buyers won’t be willing to pay for redundant car-only electronics much longer.
But how do engineers make sure components designed elsewhere are safe to use in a moving vehicle?
An instrument panel incorporating an iPad or smartphone as an operating interface for the rest of the car’s electronic systems is a budding idea that sounds great, but will tablet screens be visible from all angles and in all light conditions inside the vehicle? Is an iPad’s touchscreen the best and safest way to control functions while driving down the road at 70 mph (113 km/h)?
And don’t forget aesthetics, environmental friendliness, comfort and quality – additional key factors driving interior design.
Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director-global vehicle research for J.D. Power and Associates, says interior comfort and workmanship have risen among the top reasons why increasingly discriminating buyers purchase a specific vehicle.
Consumers want such features as rearview cameras, telescoping steering wheels with accessory controls, advanced sound systems, navigation systems, dual-zone climate controls and bottle holders in the doors – without a noticeable appreciation in price, VanNieuwkuyk notes.
All that design and cost pressure is evident in the latest report on OEM-supplier relations by Birmingham, MI-based Planning Perspectives, which polled 540 sales personnel at 415 Tier 1 suppliers for its 11th annual Working Relations Index.
The suppliers least satisfied in their dealings with General Motors, Ford and Nissan come from the interiors sector, the survey shows.
“That’s the one area that changes the most in the car,” Planning Perspectives President and CEO John W. Henke Jr. offers by way of explanation. “It’s also the one area, at least from a consumer standpoint, that’s the least forgiving. You cannot have any mistakes there. I think that puts a lot of pressure on suppliers.”
It’s also the area where everybody has an opinion.
Longtime automotive public-relations specialist Mike Hedge says he’s heard tales of auto company brass who, long after colors have been picked, materials selected and serious engineering work begun, “will come down and, just on a whim, change stuff.
“I think interiors could be subject to more of that than any other part in the car, because it is less driven by engineers and more driven by artistes.”
Still, there’s a bright side.
It wasn’t long ago auto makers paid scant attention to interior designs. Former GM product guru Bob Lutz told the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference crowd that back in 2001, some Pontiac instrument panels resembled molten lava that had “spilled through the sunroof and cooled.”
For interior suppliers, this new-found focus on styling, quality and content may be stressful, but it can’t be all that bad for business either.