It's not just the driver's seat that will undergo radical change as self-driving cars hit the roadways of the future. The whole interior of autonomous vehicles will undergo a makeover as well. Imagine watching a movie or reading a book as your car tootles down the roadway or is stuck in traffic gridlock.
"Interior design and features will be more important because people will have more free time in their vehicles," said Richard Chung, vice president of the global innovation department at auto-parts company Adient. "More specifically, self-driving cars will not be driver-centric so much as rider-centric."
The cars of today have seats, comfortable seats, to accommodate passengers going from A to B. In the hands-free driving of the future, a vehicle interior can be used as a mini-conference room, a study center or an entertainment suite.
Auto companies are already experimenting with those future pathways. Their concept car interiors are designed to look more like rooms in a home.
"With the development of new automotive materials, the shape of vehicles will change and they will become lighter," said Bill Peng, a partner with PwC's Strategy&. "Thus, the overall arrangement of interior space in vehicles is expected to change. More flexible interior design is coming, and these flexible features are likely to be first applied to high-end vehicles."
German automaker BMW unveiled its concept car named BMW i interior of future earlier this month. It is automated, freeing up hands, feet, eyes and even mental concentration. Drivers and their passengers will have a lot of leisure time as they motor to a destination.
In the rear seat of the concept model, passengers can watch movies on a widescreen. The model also has a bookshelf beside the seats for riders who like to read.
Swedish carmaker NEVS also displayed its concept vehicle, called InMotion, during the CES Asia exhibition in Shanghai earlier this month. The company said the model is a vision of the future of autonomous driving and the interior will be duly adapted.
NEVS said drivers and passengers will be able to control seat movements using a mobile app. The seats can be free to rotate, moving into a circle for group discussions, if required.
Jonas Hernqvist, vice president of sales and marketing of NEVS, explained the design concept: "This design is starting from an interior perspective, with the intention of showing how people can add quality to their lives by not wasting time while stuck in traffic. It sometime takes hours just to get across downtown areas."
NIO, a Shanghai electric vehicle startup, calls its self-driving car a "living room on wheels." Its EVE concept model, exhibited during the Shanghai Auto Show, shows the extent to which carmakers believe that interior design will be a major future selling point of self-driving vehicles.
In EVE's seating area, a discrete folding table creates space for work or play. There is a seat that can recline and allow passengers to relax or even sleep. The model is said to accommodate six passengers in five positions.
Self-driving cars are still deemed to be far from mass production and commercial application. That doesn't mean, however, that car manufacturers and auto-parts suppliers aren't already planning for the day when they will be everywhere on the roads. Where car interiors are concerned, many design concepts can be adapted to the cars of today.
"Self-driving is still a thing far away, but I am happy to see there are more carmakers changing their interior designs to suit the future needs of customer," said Yang Ming, a student at Tongji University in Shanghai.
Xiao Wenjie, an auto reporter for the Shanghai-based business magazine CBNweekly, agreed.
"Fully autonomous driving is expected to become more mature after 2030," Xiao said. "For carmakers and auto suppliers, it is still cutting-edge technology and far from the mass production. Yet, we have to remember that just five years ago, self-driving was regarded as a futuristic technology far removed from 2017."
Richard Chung, vice president with Adient, agreed with the 2030 date for the spread of autonomous driving.
"Until then, drivers will always have to intervene if required by the traffic situation," he said.