Interiors cement an owner's love affair with a vehicle and as the auto industry returns to health, more resources are being earmarked to ensure a satisfying experience behind the wheel.
More luxurious materials in mainstream cars and a greater amount of technology are being driven by engineering and manufacturing advances that are reducing costs as well as the industry's emergence from a deep recession that put some research and development investments on hold.
"The interior has become so much more important," said Ford designer Robert Gelardi at the WardsAuto Interiors Conference in Dearborn Thursday.
"The exterior is about projection of the brand image but the interior is where you experience the brand," Gelardi said.
Vehicles have been criticized for cheap plastic and other shortcuts in the past but today's consumers are smart and discerning.
"People are more aware of design and recognize craftsmanship," Gelardi said.
And there is more money to put into interiors, said Jae Min, head designer for Volkswagen of America.
Future car interiors may feature larger, more colorful displays tailored to the driver and their vehicle as well as the ability to change functions with the wave of a hand, or to customize the interior lighting to suit an individual's tastes.
Displays can be configured to reflect the profile of the driver. For an older driver, an "augmented reality" heads-up display can portray surroundings such as lanes and traffic signs on the windshield, buttons on the center console can be larger and simpler, said Susan Drescher of supplier Continental.
"We need technologies that make cars an extension of their consumer," Drescher said.
Advances in manufacturing and more flexible purchasing budgets from automakers are ushering in the adoption of a whole new set of interior lighting options, said Gerhard Fleischmann, engineering director for Lear's global lighting relationships with German automakers.
Automakers are now embracing adjustable LED lighting for many areas of a car's interior ranging from rims of cupholders and the inside of glove boxes to the dashboard.
One automaker Lear is working with plans to introduce an LED headlight system in 2014 that automatically dims the lights when oncoming traffic is approaching and returns to a high-beam strength when there are no cars ahead.
"Now after the recession what we recognize is that yes, (automakers) are prepared to spend more money on advanced technologies, to push them and even to fund them," Fleischmann said.
Technology also can help drivers who have diminished eyesight or hearing, entice millennials who want to connect their phones and other devices, and be reconfigured for multiple drivers who participate in ride sharing in congested areas, said Drescher.
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