Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI; Plymouth, MI) has peered into the future of the luxury car interior and created a vision that is deceptively Spartan. Anyone looking at the company’s Ariston luxury concept vehicle might be forgiven for thinking that it was mistakenly displayed before it was quite finished. There are no knobs, switches, vents or even a steering wheel. Just a flat horizontal expanse that looks more appropriate for eating lunch off of than for piloting an expensive vehicle. But this is all by design, explains JCI’s vice president of design and consumer research, Europe and International, David Muyres. Whereas today’s luxury buyer wants an instrument panel bristling with all of the controls that announce sophisticated functionality, JCI’s research foretells a shift to more understatement. “In the future customers are going to want to escape all of the voice mails and emails and just peacefully enjoy getting from A to B. People want the functions, but they want them hidden until they need them,” he says.
JCI’s engineers have pursued this idea of hidden functionality to an almost pathological extent. The steering wheel is so covert that it is merely an unrecognizable horizontal ring that protrudes slightly from under the dashboard. A gentle tug activates it into moving out and flipping up into the familiar vertical position. Simultaneously, a transparent display rises from above the wheel and is illuminated by ultra-violet light to reveal the speedometer and tachometer. This display can also present other information like oil or tire pressure, but does so only when necessary to avoid overloading the driver with extraneous information.
Continuing the clandestine theme, the rest of the instrument panel seems to be featureless and functionless, but is in fact made of a textured nylon-like material through which the car’s “infotainment” data is projected. From a design point of view, this innovation eliminates clutter and from an assembly and cost perspective it dispenses with the complication of bezels, buttons and knobs. Likewise, dash vents are abolished in favor of dispersing warmed or cooled air via a gap that separates the upper and lower portion of the instrument panel. Muyres says that this arrangement provides for an ambient feeling more in line with a house than a car. Though he acknowledges that some people may prefer having more control over the direction of airflow, potential customers have not voiced any concerns.
JCI’s research shows that luxury customers don’t want bigger cars, but more interior room and they are willing to sacrifice trunk space. So, the Ariston is designed with a length similar to a BMW 5-Series, but with the wheelbase of a 7-Series. The C-pillar is moved back for maximum rear seat legroom and seats are designed with a travel distance that accommodates either a lounging position or a more upright one with increased storage area behind. In what has become a commonplace concept car theme, the B-pillar is completely removed to both ease ingress and egress and to provide what Muyres calls “an invitation into the interior space” that is reminiscent of a comfortable living room.
To further the feeling of comfort and luxury, JCI worked with SLI (Canton, MA) to design an LED lighting system that is asymmetrically located above the driver and transmits a soft light across the headliner, which is interwoven with a metallic fiber that augments the ambient effect. In a touch of psychological manipulation, the light glows red when the heater is activated to enhance the impression that things are getting hotter, and blue when the air conditioner is on.