Tomorrow’s Cars Won’t Just Drive Themselves. They’ll Feel Different

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Look inside a modern car, and you’ll see many of the same materials that formed the earliest automobiles. Leather, wood, metal, and cloth convey a sense of luxury, a connection to the beloved way things were. You may see synthetic stuff too, materials born of the jet and space ages. Radical and often questionable ersatz substances like vinyl, Fiberglas™, wood grain veneer, velour, and injected plastics climbed into the car as symbols of technological sophistication and durability.

As the auto industry adapts to a smartphone-enabled world and looks to the potentially radical changes offered by autonomy, sharing, and alternative powertrains, what you touch and feel inside the car has once again drawn the attention of the world’s designers.

In recent years, new materials have come to prominence: carbon fiber, fake carbon fiber, piano black lacquer, fake piano black lacquer, translucent acrylics, and more. Meanwhile, the folks making cars have found new uses for familiar substances. They expose wood unvarnished to show off its natural grain. They puncture and pattern metals like aluminum and magnesium to deliver texture. They brogue leathers, like for a fine wingtip, to expose layers of color and craftsmanship. They lift tones like rose gold and copper from jewelry or high-end home hardware to unify consumer taste.

These fresh touches feel and look pleasant, but more importantly, they serve as a familiar guide for drivers confronting new technologies like electrification or autonomous assistance.

“We used traditional materials like glass, metal, leather, and wood, but we’ve implemented them in a different way that reflects the specifics of electric vehicles,” says Bentley’s head of interior design Brett Boydell, of the recent EXP12 Speed 6e electric sports car concept. His team replaced the familiar sound of an gas engine starting up with a visual sequence that lights up the glass touch screens when the car silently turns on. “Our passenger screen area looks like piano black lacquer, but it’s a screen—so it’s a beautiful surface that reveals its technology when you want it,” Boydell says. “And we also use copper trim bits, to call back to electrical wiring.”

Consumers have other concerns. Vegan leather substitutes, fast-growing and readily renewable woods like bamboo or banana leaf, and recycled fabric blends cater to a newly popular interest in sustainability.

“It’s not just about leather, it’s about finding other ways forward,” says Derek Jenkins, design director for California luxury electric vehicle startup Lucid Motors. “How do we make felts more appealing from a premium standpoint, and durable enough to exist in a luxury car, that it feels as worthy as traditional leathers? How do we use reclaimed materials in minimal quantities, but still have maximum impact?”

Some of this leads consumers along a new pathway, in much the same way that unfamiliar technologies like battery-powered vehicles and electrical charging require education and guidance. “You introduce these things to show the consumer the innate value of it, and the responsible sub-story,” explains Bill Chergosky, who leads interiors for Toyota advanced design. “It adds value and it becomes something valuable.”

People like jewelry, something you can feel, something durable. Mercedes-Benz design director Gorden Wagener

Some follows emerging sensibilities. As the automobile adapts to new uses and use scenarios, so does consumer taste. “You have the traditional luxury consumer who really values legacy and tradition and old-world appeal, and is less focused on technology,” says Jenkins. “And then you have the affluent tech-focused consumer who really values technology and the new experience that technology brings above all else. They would even sacrifice, perhaps, craftsmanship and traditional materials to experience that technology before anyone else.”

This privileging of tech over all other realms can lead to a kind of aesthetic asceticism, as seen in recent bare bones, big screened vehicles like the Toyota Prius and Tesla Model S. But it can also lead to a countervailing trend, in which, as disposable and transmutable items like LCD and OLED displays proliferate, consumers find themselves desiring more grounding, lasting, and captivating materials, a trend that some designers refer to as “Super Analog.”

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“The interior will become more focused around screens, so it will be important to have analog candies to delight people,” says Mercedes-Benz global design director Gorden Wagener. “People like jewelry, something tactile, something you can feel, something durable—that you can pass down. Luxury is about this kind of durability, the long-life approach.” BMW and Rinspeed have recently shown automotive interior concepts that even include moss and other plants, enunciating a life cycle and connection to the earth.

Alternately, or simultaneously, interiors may become more focused on even more evanescent, but deeply sensorial materials. In Asia and the Middle East, light and fragrance are key experiential cues, and can even serve as mood adjusters on a long, tedious commute. In today’s global industry, these elements have found a worldwide appeal. “Flexible ambient lighting, zone and mood and color adjustability,” Lucid’s Jenkins rattles off. “And scent is big as well. The question is how augmented do you go? Do you try to stay within the realm of the materials, or do you really try to manipulate the environment the way you would, say, in a hotel lobby, or in a retail space?”

As the autonomous, shared, connected future approaches, other physical considerations become relevant. If you don’t own and maintain a vehicle of your own, and it’s passing through the hands and seats and who know what else of a multifarious public, the materials that line it might benefit from added features like being antibacterial, sterilizable, or at least readily washable.

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