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Though JCI emphasizes the "ecology, economy and ergonomics" that gives its 3E concept its name, if it had a fourth "e" it would be for electronics. The supplier has peered into the future of interiors and found it to be stark and high-tech. The 3E's instrument panel consists of one large touch panel display mounted on a hinged arm that protrudes from an otherwise featureless dash. It controls everything from HVAC to the sound system with the help of playful, easy-to-understand icons. Turn on the heat and a flame appears; for the A/C it's a snowflake. A pouch positioned below the screen can recharge and connect portable electronic devices like MP3 players and handheld computers. And a webcam built into the headliner allows the driver to chat with backseat passengers while seeing them on the touch screen, or send impromptu photos via the Internet.
PURE ATTRIBUTES. Talk to Rob Huber, executive director of industrial design at Johnson Controls, Inc. (JCI), about the future of automotive interiors and you will hear a lot about "attributes"—characteristics like "utility" or "spaciousness" that are arguably the main reason someone chooses one particular vehicle over another. To an industry obsessed with dissecting transportation desires based on generational cohorts like Gen X or Millennials, he cautions, "It's more about understanding a vehicle's attributes than understanding demographics. Attributes go across generations, so the key is to identify them and then be pure to them." Not that Huber is dismissing the concept of homing in on customers' vehicular aspirations by studying the tastes of certain age groups. On the contrary, he finds it a necessary basis for market research, but says, "People often stop at the generational level and are surprised when they market to a certain segment and then it appeals to other demographics. But that is just natural." That is, a twentysomething surfer and a septuagenarian antique collector both need vehicles with lots of space, so capacity can be a bigger buying determinant than their relative ages. With that in mind, JCI is trying to suss the future course of interiors by exploring themes that its research shows are nearly universal across customer categories, rather than focusing on what could be just generational stereotypes.
CONFLICT IS GOOD. The most well-formed example of this approach is the company's recent concept vehicle, the 3E, which is named for the three attributes it is designed to display: ecology, economy and ergonomics. Conceived as a next generation high-roof compact, the 3E resembles an Element that is even more Spartan and utilitarian inside than Honda's hose-it-out hauler. The all-plastic interior makes use of recycled materials throughout in keeping with the ecological theme. For better ergonomics, the rear seat can be lowered when accommodating adults, raised so kids can see better and their parents can get them in and out easier, and folded flat for more cargo room. To cut costs, the front seat is fixed to the floorpan, eliminating tracks, complex adjustment mechanisms and motors. (The steering wheel slides in and out of the dash to adjust driving position.) Huber says the 3E demonstrates how the attributes most people tell JCI they want in an interior can be blended together, but he hastens to point out that pursuing one attribute can put you in direct conflict with another. The most ecologically sound solution may not be the most cost-effective. Focus largely on environmental and economic characteristics, and ergonomics could suffer. But this clash, Huber holds, is a good thing because it leads to the kind of creative dissonance from which good design emerges. "Without opposing attributes you tend to design something that may be appropriate for a time, but it becomes pretty cliché pretty quickly," he explains, "Conflict is our way of putting filters and parameters on ourselves as we explore new things."
BE AUTHENTIC. Another characteristic that the 3E exemplifies, albeit from an ironic direction, is authenticity, which Huber says is a growing focus for JCI and other interior specialists. Why ironic? Because the 3E's interior is made entirely out of plastic, a material that for most people screams "Fake!" But the JCI design team's take on plastics is that it is a material that has finally achieved its own authenticity, and no longer needs to be chromed or covered in ersatz woodgrain. "In the case of 3E we said we are not going to hide the fact that there is a lot of plastic," says Huber, "We're going to be true to what plastic is and highlight its quality." He goes on to say that well-designed plastic consumer products (his example is designer vases from Target) now garner the kind of emotional attachment once reserved for traditionally more authentic materials like metals and wood, so why shouldn't the same be true for car interiors? Which is not to say that car buyers will soon be shunning nickel bezels in favor of all-plastic instrument panels (in fact OEMs want more real metal touches), but that we may see fewer plastic pieces masquerading as metal and wood mixed with strategically positioned bits of the real thing.
JCI's Rob Huber spends a lot of time working with automakers to better current interiors and come up with new ones. Here's his take on some key issues affecting the automotive interiors business.
On the current relationship between OEMs and Tier 1 interior suppliers: "There is a balance that is being struck that is very healthy. Clearly the OEMs still maintain control of approval of the overall theme and how it relates to their brand. That is their core competency. Ours is to enable that theme with a high level of craftsmanship and as cost-effectively as we can."
On seating flexibility: "The Stow-'n-Go (the Chrysler and Intier-developed fold flat seats currently available on Chrysler and Dodge minivans) is a product that took it to the next level, and I think everybody is going to strive toward something similar to that."
On consistency and cheap plastic: "We spend a lot of time looking at materials and processes that will create a consistency in the interior. A lot of times it's as much about inconsistencies that causes issues as it is the overall quality. If you see a difference in gloss levels between a door panel, an instrument panel and a glove box door you quickly and intuitively think about cheap plastic."