When you slide into the car of the future, you may feel like you’ve already reached your destination.
You’ll sit at tables, under ambient lighting, getting help from voice assistants as you stretch out your legs in reclining seats. And that’s appealing to many Americans who already know they want to sleep, send emails or play video games as they zip down the road in a car that operates itself.
With self-driving vehicles on the horizon, automakers are rethinking what the future of car interiors will look like. And because these completely autonomous cars, called Level 5 vehicles, will free drivers from focusing on the highway, companies are now free to experiment.
And that means premium cars could be loaded with tech that makes workers’ commutes more posh, passive and personalized than ever before. Picture a pod hotel room – on wheels.
Automakers like BMW, Nissan and General Motors, for example, have shown off prototype vehicles with onboard voice assistants, smart temperature controls and modular seating, suggesting there will be little difference between your car interior and your smart home.
“It’s fair to say that living room environments, very personal home environments and boutique hotels are inspiring (us) when we design the interior of the car in the future,” says Holger Hampf, president of BMW Group’s Designworks.
When will self-driving cars be available?
And while the timeline for self-driving cars is unclear and their costs appear high – perhaps adding six figures to the price tag of a vehicle – at least one study shows Americans are willing to pay more to let their cars drive themselves.
Fully autonomous vehicles aren’t on the roads yet. But some smart cars are already letting drivers ease up behind the wheel by offering collision avoidance features. Most notably Tesla’s Autopilot is a driver-assistance system that has lane centering, adaptive cruise control and lets the car navigate autonomously on limited-access freeways.
BMW, Nissan, GM reveal self-driving prototypes
Two examples of the trend toward mobile living rooms appeared in January at CES in Las Vegas, one of the world’s largest tech shows. BMW’s i3 Urban Suite concept car featured a seating layout configured for the rideshare trips of your sci-fi fantasies.
The driving seat, dashboard and steering wheel inside the concept car looked unremarkable. But the German carmaker had transformed the passenger seat into a cozy, personalized sitting room that harked back to fancy airline cabins.
The car has room for two people: a driver in the traditional steering position and a rear passenger who has most of the car to lounge in. Instead of a second rear seat, there’s a side table and hi-tech lamp. There’s also an adjustable footrest.
The company also showed an automobile called the i Interaction EASE, which was a bridge between a camper and a car. The exterior looked like a futuristic microwave – a sleek, white rectangle with a semitransparent glass door. The cockpit, however, was designed for a time when self-driving cars become mainstream.
Gesture controls replaced buttons. The seats were touch-sensitive and there was an Ease Mode, which lets the seats back into a “zero-gravity” reclining position so they lean 60-degrees.
“As soon as you allow someone to take their hands off the steering wheel for an extended period of time, we, as humans, want to do other things,” Hampf said. BMW’s approach is to embed tech that entertains, enables people to sleep or check emails once they become the passengers of their own car.
GM showed the world that it’s rethinking how seats will be positioned when it debuted its Cruise Origin in January. The van-like concept vehicle has seats facing each other so riders can “relax, work or connect,” the automaker said.
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In 2019, Nissan created an elevated sports sedan concept that the company calls a “premium hotel lounge-like space.”
The Nissan IMs’ exterior silhouette looks like a car that could be on the road today. But the convertible interior is something completely new.
The sedan could seat up to five people. The sides of the rear seat fold-down, giving the center passenger armrests in a more executive-style arrangement. When the car is in self-driving mode, the driver can shift to this space to relax or get some work done.
Each of these vehicles is a concept, a vehicle built to show off new technology or styling. And while they may never go into production, they illustrate what these brands have in mind for the future.
Many cars on the road today have features that display Level 1 and Level 2 autonomy, or short bursts of automated capabilities. Level 3 and Level 4 vehicles are highly automated in certain circumstances, while Level 5 cars can drive themselves around without human intervention.
Fully autonomous adds $100,000 or more
Fully autonomous technology could add at least $100,000 to the price of a vehicle, according to the car insurance provider Esurance, putting the features out of reach for most Americans. Still, more than half of car buyers (56%) would be willing to pay a premium of up to 20% for a self-driving vehicle, a 2019 study by the consulting group Capgemini has found.
Uncertainty about regulatory approval and questions about infrastructure and battery innovations make the availability of self-driving cars difficult to predict. However, studies suggest that automakers are being pushed to crank up the homeyness of car interiors anyway.
Interiors matter more than outsides
Drivers want more privacy, greater comfort and connectivity, making car cabins more important to buyers than powertrain and exterior appearance, a 2018 McKinsey survey found.
The research firm polled over 2,000 consumers, and 70% of people said the ability to customize the interior of a car to meet their needs will become a major decision point within the next 5 years. The company also polled automotive experts and executives, of which 90% said that interior features will have a great impact on the premium car market.
Car buyers said they wanted more control over internal environments, smarter traffic alert systems and the ability to be productive from the back seat. They also want multipurpose cabins that support their evolving lifestyles, which could include driving for a ride-hailing company or thinking about leasing the car into a fleet of smart taxis.
Consumers clamoring for smarter interiors gives automakers an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the pack, said Ben Ellencweig, a partner at McKinsey & Co., who advises automotive companies on retail and mobility.
“It’s hard to predict whether we will have multipurpose vehicles, or will there be vehicles for different use cases. But it is clear that (car) usage is becoming differentiated and interiors are the best way to showcase those differences,” Ellencweig said.
The option to sleep promises to become a popular pastime in autonomous cars, a Harris Poll commissioned by Erie Insurance found. Licensed drivers also said they’d like to text, send emails and play video games in their cars.
Before motorists can completely turn attention away from the road ahead, cars need to be able to connect to surrounding infrastructure. That’s where 5G connectivity and smart cities fit into the equation, enabling vehicles to make instantaneous and complex decisions based on their surroundings.
Slow shift from car to connected living room
The transition from a mundane car to an autonomous connected room will be slow and gradual, says Thom Rickert, a risk and insurance specialist at Trident Public Risk Solutions.
As cars shift closer toward Level 3 and 4 autonomy, seating arrangements would have to allow drivers to reengage into a traditional steering position once vehicles move away from urban centers or off designated freeways, Rickert said.
BMW imagines that cars will make active suggestions, perhaps through voice commands, to let the driver know its time to wake up and focus on steering. The car would also let drivers know when its safe to delve into other tasks.
For instance, once the driver makes it to a safe stretch of freeway, an AI-backed voice would call out to let them know its a good time to make a phone call.
“When the car needs you to take over again, you need to quickly readjust everything so you can grab the steering wheel,” Hampf said. “We’re exploring this type of spectrum. We’re looking for the sweet spot.”
Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown.