Designing empty space

Features - Design

Changing customer tastes and vehicle technologies are freeing interior space in critical areas of many new cars.

February 18, 2016

It’s the hippest, coolest spot around, property so popular that automotive designers have a name for it – Manhattan.

“You’ve got this really expensive real estate that goes from the armrest, all the way up to the top of the touchscreen on the dashboard. Everyone wants their space,” says Amko Leenarts, director of global interiors design strategy at Ford Motor Co. “The radio wants its space, the climate controls want the space, the touchscreens want the space. The cupholders, the media bins, they all want to be there. It’s Manhattan, the most expensive piece of land in the interior of the car.”

And with the 2017 Escape small crossover, Ford designers effectively tore down a New York skyscraper and replaced it with a parking lot. The updated version of the vehicle will only have automatic transmissions in North America, eliminating the need for a hand-lever parking brake.

That mechanical decision freed space in the interior. Leenarts’ team used that prime real estate for nothing. With every customer-facing system begging for more space, designers felt the best use of the newly opened real estate was expanded storage room.

It’s a trend that design experts say has been building for years. Changing customer tastes, combined with mechanical design changes in cars, are giving designers freedom to eliminate components that have been core to cars for a century.

  • Chrysler’s 200 sedan uses an electronically controlled dial as its gear selector instead of a giant stalk coming up from the floor, creating a hollow space under the center stack for cell phones and chargers.
  • Lincoln’s MKC and MKZ vehicles move gear selection to buttons on the dashboard, freeing valuable storage space in the area between driver and passenger.
  • Several Cadillacs use touchscreens to combine audio and climate controls.
  • Renee Stephens, vice president U.S. Auto Quality at J.D. Power and a former quality chief at General Motors, explains, “Designers are looking for cleaner layouts, a functional but visually appealing look. We’ll see more areas of the interior being decluttered and simplified, yet it will have more functionality.”

    In China, Ford uses an electronically controlled, gear-selecting dial instead of a gear lever.
    Decluttering benefits

    For drivers, simplified interiors offer some critical benefits – mainly freeing enough space for cell phone storage. Leenarts says Ford designers recognized that cup holders had effectively become phone holders in many cars, and drivers were looking for more space, preferably with a charging point nearby.

    However, the bigger benefits are for the automakers. Consolidating multiple functions into a single touchscreen control eliminates components, costs, and lightens the interior. And extra space can go to higher-end entertainment systems that can generate extra revenue.

    Geoff Wardle, executive director of Graduate Transportation Design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and a former Saab designer, says, “There’s pressure on car designers to put in more usable features for entertainment or giving information to drivers and passengers. They’re going to make use of any advantage they can take by getting rid of fairly clunky mechanical systems and replacing them with electronic options.”

    Ford, for example, didn’t eliminate the parking brake in the Escape. Engineers eliminated the mechanical lever that reaches through the floorboards to the tension-actuated brake, and they replaced it with an electronic system. With the 200, Chrysler designers removed the mechanical linkages between the old-fashioned gear lever and the car’s automatic transmission.

    It’s like an iceberg, says Pat Stewart, vice president and executive director of interior systems for supplier Inteva Products. “For every component a driver sees, there’s more hiding underneath the surface.”

    Driving changes

    “As we move to drive by wire, the accelerator pedal in some cases is just an electronic rheostat connected to the engine management system,” Wardle says. “We have the opportunity to make pedals different in the way they’re constructed and designed.”

    Autonomous driving systems could revolutionize interiors, design experts say. As cars take on more of the driving task, designers could theoretically get rid of pedals and steering wheels altogether. It’s many years away, but an option that Wardle, Stephens, Leenarts, and Stewart all say car companies are considering.

    “Companies are taking a hard look at the steering wheel, looking for ways to make it less intrusive, smaller, and more visually appealing,” Stephens says. “At some point, we’ll have to ask ‘Do we need it at all?’”

    Shorter term, more companies will move to electronic shifts similar to the one in the Chrysler 200 or Lincoln MKZ. In China, for example, Ford’s Taurus uses a dial shifter. Wardle says it’s surprising that automakers have taken as long as they have to get rid of the heavy systems, especially given how much of a priority lightweighting is at most companies.

    “For 80 years or more, the transmission had this giant mechanical lever that came through the middle of the car. But now, most automatics are electronically controlled, and even that lever isn’t mechanically controlled. It’s really just a big switch,” Wardle says.

    Touchscreens will continue to become more prevalent. The massive touchscreens on Tesla’s Model S and Model X are what experts say will be the control systems of the future – a single interface for everything from cabin temperature to radio stations to autonomous driving controls.

    Alienating customers

    Experts agree that the biggest risk to radically changing car interiors is confusing drivers. As Stewart puts it, “The reaction to the Tesla touchscreen ranges from, ‘I can’t figure it out,’ to ‘It’s the most sensational thing to ever exist.’”

    It’s not just a Tesla issue. Ford’s first attempt at a touchscreen controls system, MyFordTouch, met consumer resistance. Consumer Reports magazine lowered ratings on several vehicles for the touchscreen-driven control system.

    Wardle adds that just because a consolidated control is easier to manufacture and install, “That doesn’t mean that it’s ergonomically better for users. I’ve often been frustrated when I’ve wanted to do something simple like turn down the volume of the radio or turn up the heat. And instead of just grabbing a knob and twisting it, you have to scroll through a bunch of touchscreen windows. It’s more time consuming, and it takes your eyes off the road.”

    Designers have another term for evaluating how far they can push control systems without annoying drivers – most advanced yet acceptable (MAYA).

    “If you talk about features that are new, there is generally a learning curve that can be applied, and we have good systems in place on how to test these things,” Leenarts adds. “We push the limits, but at the same time, the customer can adapt to them fairly easily.”

    How close designers come to that MAYA ideal will be the mark of success or failure for many of the new interior systems. JD Powers’ Stephens says there will be many successes and failures as car companies try to get the most features packaged in the least amount of space.

    “This is the start of a long, evolutionary development,” Stephens says.

    Art Center College of Design

    Ford Motor Co.

    Inteva Products

    JD Power

    About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of TMV and can be reached at 216.393.0271 or