In the automotive business, a car’s looks may be the head-turning first step to falling in love with a new vehicle, but more and more companies are coming to the realization that interior design is critical in cementing the initial attraction into a long-term relationship.
A recent J.D. Power and Associates survey placed interior comfort as the second most important factor in purchasing a vehicle, just behind reliability, and even ahead of exterior style.
Original equipment manufacturers are projected to increase spending to 10 billion dollars a year on interior materials alone by 2009, according to consulting firm CSM Worldwide.
Firms like Volkswagen have carved a niche for themselves in various mainstream markets with its premium interiors in the past decade, with vehicles like the Rabbit nee Golf hatchback offering high quality plastics and an overall high level of perceived quality unmatched for the price, such as its spring loaded grab handles, a common feature on luxury cars, but until the Golf non-existent in other segments.
The VW group’s luxury Audi division has taken that level to heart, pouring development and design resources into its interiors, to the point where Audi won three interior excellence awards last year from auto industry trade magazine Ward’s Auto, capitalizing on interior design quality as one of the brand’s main calling cards.
This emphasis is somewhat muted these days, now that it has a much sexier mid-engine two-seat supercar in the R8 to help trumpet the brand. But more attainable vehicles like Audi’s new for 2008 S5 continue to push a high standard of technology combined with quality of materials that communicates the division’s sophistication as well or better than any advertising tagline.
It hasn’t only been well-crafted interiors that have made the auto industry in general sit up and pay close attention to interior design. In the last 10 years, Apple has proven that fine design - not only visual pull, but tactile appeal and an all-important obsession for user-friendliness - trumps the latest exotic gee-whiz technology in making a new product popular. As seen with the iPod, Apple has mastered the use of multiple iterations, advancements and collaborations to continually freshen a familiar family DNA.
Car companies are taking lessons from Apple, and at any major auto show in the last three years, the long reach of that little music player has been exceedingly evident. Not only with the ubiquitous addition of external audio inputs that allow drivers to plug in their iPod in a rapidly growing number of new cars, but with the increasing number of senior auto execs that have cited the iPod as inspiration for how they plan to increase both the capabilities of interior features, and the likelihood that drivers will actually use them.
A good example of this is Ford’s multimedia Sync system, which Ford is promoting along with its 2008 Focus almost as much as the car itself. The system may be a result of a collaboration with Apple nemesis Microsoft, but it was designed to work smoothly with iPods as well as MS’s own Zune music-playing devices.
While many new cars offer Bluetooth connectivity to cell phones, with some also offering USB ports, the ground-breaking part of the Sync system is that it’s the first to be able to control almost any music player, Blackberry or cell phone with voice and steering wheel buttons. It’s also the first system to be able to read back text messages sent to you while you’re driving, more specifically to your cell phone, and it’s programmed to recognize and read out common short forms like "LOL".
Helping to push this focus on interior friendliness forward are new advanced 3D computer modeling programs that help companies design, evaluate and then manufacture products quicker, easier and therefore better.
Interior design has always been closer to traditional industrial design than exterior vehicle styling, said Richard Jones, a mechanical engineer by trade and vice president of Autodesk’s Alias design products, a popular digital prototyping suite of software used in every major automotive design studio around the world.
"The shift with this software is not only to use less time, but also to do more models, more Sport versions, more different bodies based on the same mechanical components, and Jones. "Even companies who are losing money, like Ford, are hiring more designers."
The shift to creating more vehicles on fewer platforms and using digital models instead of real ones has real world benefits for all occupants, by increasing what can be engineered into the vehicle right from the beginning.
Mercedes-Benz announced earlier this year that its 2008 C-Class was the first mainstream vehicle ever produced entirely in a virtual world, with a digital prototype that allowed Benz engineers to almost perfectly predict how its new entry-level sedan would act on the road, before any actual prototypes were built.
By the time Mercedes-Benz created its first real life engineering mule, Mercedes engineers knew how the safety structures would hold up in 5,500 different crashes, how its doors would sound when each closed, how much of a road bump its various suspension setups could absorb, and even the size of air outlets needed to achieve the expected luxury car climate-controlled comfort. All thanks to a 2,130 gigabyte digital prototype that helped the German luxury car company achieve a mind-boggling 140 million digital and real-world test miles.