Car design and automobile interiors are evolving, responding not only to new technology but also to what we do and how we do it
Carmakers have long been ahead of the design curve, albeit largely for their mechanical engineering skills rather than aesthetics. Nonetheless, there is little more recognisable, even for those who are not gearheads, than the extended bonnet of Jaguar's midcentury -type, the Porsche Spyder or the Rolls-Royce Phantom. Exterior design is always changing, and more than ever, so are car interiors. "We believe interior space is an element of car design that has been most reflective of changing societal trends for the past 10 years," says Sangyup Lee, senior vice president and head of the Hyundai Design Center. The manufacturer was sixth in the world's best-selling car ranks last year.
In an increasingly urbanised world, where sustainability, public transit and walkability are becoming important, cars may one day be a luxury item – but they're not going away anytime soon. Hartmut Sinkwitz, director of interior design for Mercedes-Benz, argues that the line between public and private transport is blurring, and that each can lift the best from the other in terms of size and flexibility. "The use of autonomous drive functions means interiors can be used like business-class cabins in private jets," he says. Hyundai's Lee agrees, citing the rise in demand for sport utility vehicles (SUVs) worldwide that is forcing car designers to reconsider the standard three-box – driver, passengers, cargo – layout. "Nowadays interior design is becoming even more important, as it also needs to serve a role as a living space for both driver and passengers; thus new forms of vehicle typologies are emerging."At the luxury end of the spectrum, car design has become an expression of lifestyle – like a holiday home or yacht. Gavin Hartley, head of bespoke design for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, notes that Rolls has never really been a car of necessity. "This allows us a significant amount of design freedom… when you transcend the automotive field vast possibilities in terms of interior design open up." The dash on the new Phantom is called The Gallery for its commissioned artwork, tailored upholstery and gems incorporated in its materials.
Autonomous drive, electric power, GPS and other technologies that are now standard – as well as more experiential interiors that don't sacrifice practicality – apply to all price points. Sinkwitz notes easily accessible cup holders, USB ports and visible cruise-control switches are only a handful of those demands, adding that greater progress has stemmed from more "emotional design concepts". Hartley agrees, pointing to the fact that so many Rolls-Royces are driven by chauffeurs, with a corresponding demand for lounge-like interiors.
Digital technology may be the most influential element when it comes to interiors. Display panels are generally larger, audio/visual/navigation (AVN) units are more independent, head-up displays (HUD) are standard, layouts are more ergonomic and tech must be incorporated in cars the same way it has been in other areas of everyday life. Smart, AI-based functions are also emerging, while greater customisation is also coming into play – for colour, materials and graphics – particularly at the high end."Technology… enables designers to create a modern or even futuristic experience in the interior of tomorrow. If you think about [Mercedes-Benz's new A-Class] MBUX and the almost uncountable functions of this fascinating system, you won't miss some knobs so they may disappear in the future," says Sinkwitz. That model features speech recognition that, he believes, turns the car into a companion. Knobs and buttons won't completely vanish, however, as Sinkwitz points out we remain tactile beasts. "We love objects that give us, as humans, an authentic tactile feeling that cannot be replaced by touchscreens or virtual reality," he says. "The balance between haptics and virtual reality is important for interiors in the future."
Lee agrees, noting voice and facial recognition will re-imagine control panels and smooth out surfaces, but emphasises that, as with most technology, the buttons are there for a reason. "Buttons, knobs and levers that are critical to safety can become smaller and lighter, but will never be completely removed," he says. Design innovative cannot come at the expense of safety, so there are indeed limits on what can be done. But as Hartley argues, "When it comes to layout, the demands of crash-safety testing and production make the proposition more challenging. That is not to say that with time and investment it is not possible."Demonstrating the modern combination of tech and experiential style, the new BMW Z4 roadster boasts a HUD digital gauge cluster with oversized display, and an unconventional tachometer and speedometer – a geometric band instead of traditional circular dial – plus customisable displays. BMW calls this, when partnered with its central infotainment and iDrive screen, the Live Cockpit Professional; the extensive services include ambient LED lighting, two-zone climate control and optional Harman Kardon 12-speaker digital surround-sound system. A spacious central armrest separates supple leather seating in a range of neutral beige or more vivid oranges, complemented by black or mahogany on the dash.
While addressing the demand for SUVs, the Range Rover Velar and the Mercedes AMG G 63 are modernising their interiors to speak to contemporary uses for this type of car. The re-envisioned AMG G 63's interiors reflect its shell, with round headlight motifs coming inside, chrome accents, shared displays with a choice of Classic, Sporty and Progressive views and increased interior volume. The Velar features similar supple leather seating, ample breathing room and large touchscreen display with dials that respond to the on-screen icons for that tactile experience, all enhanced by soothing neutral tones.Not surprisingly at the top of the line in the ultra-luxury sector is Rolls-Royce. Its new Cullinan is a customisable lifestyle vehicle, and its interiors reflect that. "Bespoke customisation defines Rolls-Royce and almost all our cars feature unique design elements and lifestyle enhancements commissioned by our customers," says Hartley. Luxury materials – box grain leather, natural wood – symmetrical design and classic geometry inform the aesthetic. Hand-finished metal accents on the centre stack connecting to the dashboard give the space a muscular, but not alienating, feel, and rear passengers are treated to pavilion-style seating to ensure every passenger has a view and experiences the ride as much as the driver does. The Cullinan also departs from the standard two-box configuration common to SUVs, giving the interior layout a fresh spin. At the heart of it all is Rolls-Royce's first touchscreen, connected to the Cullinan's digital information systems, that nonetheless maintains a classical Rolls-Royce look.
Drivers can and should expect more design changes in the future if consumers embrace the idea of alternative in-car activities, which Hyundai for one is actively researching. "As we are approaching an autonomous driving future, these customer desires will need to be reflected in a vehicle's design," Lee concludes.