Designing interiors for autonomous vehicles

Features - Design

Southco expert William Sokurenko discusses how automakers have to rethink vehicle layouts as cars and trucks take over more driving functions.

August 9, 2017

Position-control hinges with constant torque, such as the Southco ST series, can hold vehicle interior components in position with one-hand operation. With autonomous vehicles, more free time in cars will likely lead to an increase in mobile device use, making positioning tables and equipment popular.

In a relatively short time, a host of global automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have gone all-in on autonomous vehicles (AVs), with new players in the technology industry also entering the market with deep pockets and experience in networked computing. They are staking a major portion of their growth plans on technology that, as little as a decade ago, was considered closer to science fiction than real products with real market potential.

At this point, all the major players are promoting various plans to have AVs on the road by the early 2020s. When that happens, people will start changing how they use and operate automobiles, and that change will challenge how the interiors of these vehicles are designed, engineered, and operated.

Multi-phase deployment

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has established a widely used scale of automated driving systems, ranging from Level 0 – complete driver control, or what we have now – to Level 5, for full autonomy. As new technologies are introduced and these levels progress, the automotive interior design community is considering how automotive interiors will evolve. What will be modified and what aspects of the interior will remain the same? What new functionalities will be introduced as the roles and usage requirements of the driver and passengers change? And perhaps most importantly, what will the autonomous vehicle interior look like?

New user interfaces

As AVs move from today’s capabilities (technologies that focus on driver assistance) to Levels 3 and 4 (more automated driving), the average driver is estimated to have up to 50 minutes of free time to simply ride in the vehicle as a passenger. This means the cockpit area of the vehicle will be changing in subtle, yet significant ways.

There will likely be a steering wheel and instrument display, with car seats maintaining their conventional look and feel due to safety concerns. However, a greater range of amenities will be possible – tray tables and infotainment systems that can be deployed as needed, easier access to USB interfaces for digital devices, and even head-up displays (HUD) on windshields for live video and Internet feeds that may be deployed to satisfy a wider range of tasks once the driver is freed from controlling the vehicle.

How will the user (no longer only the driver) interact with these new features and fixtures? What kind of user experience will best serve their needs?

Increasingly, that experience comes down to the various user interfaces with the vehicle interior. As autonomy increases and the driver’s cockpit involves less driving, there are more areas where the user can interact. When the driver’s hands aren’t on the wheel, they can go on to a multi-functional table display or a swinging arm that allows them to position their tablet to work, access the Internet, or watch a movie.

Figuring out how these devices will be engineered and integrated into the existing dimensions of the vehicle’s cockpit presents a new set of design and engineering challenges. It will be equally challenging to engineer how these devices look, feel, and behave as the driver uses them – how stable they are, how easy they are to deploy and stow away again.

Consider the center console: its most basic functionality is as an armrest and storage unit. As interior designers consider how to support non-driving tasks, the center console could become a multifunctional device that doubles as a tray table or laptop support.

Automotive interior designers must consider consumers’ emotional reactions to the look and feel of a vehicle’s interior. Everything from materials used, to ease of operation and general appearance shape customer perception of quality toward the automotive manufacturer. Intuitive mechanisms with one-touch release, one-handed operation, and quick stow-away, for instance, offer effortless operation that end users desire.

Those mechanisms extend beyond the AV driver’s cockpit – front passengers will also use potential center console features, as well as enhancements to glove box functionality. New trends featuring a variety of door actuation styles such as lift paddle, side pull, electromechanical, and push-button are becoming more widely used in glove box applications, raising a challenge to the engineers who must integrate these styles into the design.

The back seats of many AVs will also call for new functionality and added components to enhance the user experience. For example, ride-sharing fleets may want to add small beverage coolers outfitted with electronic locks that will open when the passenger makes a purchase via their app. Incorporating electronic access devices – particularly state-of-the-art devices that include features such as cloud-based control, verification, and usage tracking – into storage units inside these AVs will involve additional engineering time and cost.

Autonomous vehicle technology could expand ride-sharing service use, making it important to regulate use of interior storage. Smart interior systems could limit glovebox access to passengers with proper ID codes or serve as vending machines — opening up when passengers purchase items with apps.

And as the density of application zones multiplies, an additional challenge arises: maintaining consistency of industrial design so that the user experience is repeatable, familiar, and intuitive throughout the vehicle. If users must turn a knob at one point of interaction, push something for another, and lift something for a third device, it can negatively impact the vehicle’s brand.

Streamlining development

The design development cycle for new interior fixtures is typically two to three years – but with aggressive commitments by many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to begin deploying Level 3 AVs in the early 2020s, there’s not much time left. How much strain will AV design teams experience when engineering, specifying, and testing all the components for these new devices – especially when there are so many other engineering tasks to accomplish to meet aggressive launch dates?

It is possible to streamline this process by working with suppliers who have proven technology already supporting the user experience the next generation of AVs require. Many of today’s automotive interiors already use hinge-and-release components that deliver one-touch-release, intuitive use and control, and one-hand operation.

Collaborating with these kinds of suppliers offers an added advantage. Their experience in engineering and producing motion components for automotive interiors can be leveraged by AV design teams to solve bottlenecks and recommend solutions for new fixtures being created for the first time for AV interiors. In addition, they often have extensive in-house engineering teams skilled at quickly adapting existing mechanisms to new requirements.

Timelines are quickly getting tight for the real-world launch of autonomous vehicles. OEMs want to be certain that their AV platforms give users a distinctive experience throughout their ride – whether controlled by a driver or the network. Integrating the right components into the functions of these vehicles’ interiors will make a substantial contribution to that experience.


About the author: William Sokurenko is business development manager for transportation at Southco. He can be reached at 610.459.4000 or