This is part two of a two-part series that explores how automotive interiors will change with the rise of electric and autonomous vehicles.
While electric cars are just about to enter a phase of mass market reality, large scale fleets of fully autonomous "Robocabs" will remain a futuristic vision for a few more years. We are more likely to get accustomed to Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) by seeing fleets of trucks "platooning" together on the highway than we are by seeing driverless taxis.
While the transition to electric vehicles will require designers to rethink the materials of the car interior, AVs will revolutionize it. A whole range of materials will need to be redesigned as parts that are necessary today, will become obsolete. Additionally, designers will need to consider the unique purposes of AV-enabled mobility and new consumer demands that will follow once it becomes a standard option of personal transportation.
Design Driven by Comfort
Most people would agree that steering wheels and pedals are necessary car features. But what would cabins look like when those parts are not required anymore?
Early designs by leading automotive manufacturers have sleek, open plans that no longer have a driver-oriented environment. Instead, they focus on quality spaces, with a dashboard-mounted screen. For some of these designs, there are hidden steering wheels and pedals so a driver could override the autonomous feature if necessary. This built-in safety feature requires a new level of high-end mechanisms to accommodate a mid-drive shift from autonomous control to driver-oriented operation.
Functionalities on-demand will be at the core of technologies to watch out for. Either achieved by kinematic functions or invisibly embedded electronic switches for lit-when-touched operations. In general, advanced lighting functions will play a tremendous role for passengers, providing comfort, guiding them or drawing their attention to an alert.
Trinseo is already exploring solutions to these new design needs, including materials that could create the sleeker dashboard and collapsible steering wheel, such as the ENLITE™ LGF, as well as related to next generation of light guides made from PMMA and translucent TPU solutions with soft, pleasant feels.
Ride in Safety
Autonomous vehicles will make us evaluate how we use cars, as some already believe it will expand the ride sharing industry as a mobility option that is always available and affordable to the entire society.
So let us not ignore the other beneficial dimension of AV-enabled transportation: lowest OPEX, automated solutions of individual mobility. This will mean fleets of 24/7 operating robocabs and larger service providers will exactly offer such low-priced transportation. Handling many customers over a day requires a very durable interior - especially when no taxi driver will personally eye your misbehavior.
Cost and durability could impose very simplified designs utilizing large, thermoformed sheets rather complex assemblies. Durable plastics such as our MAGNUM™ ABS or PULSE™ PC/ABS can exactly deliver that - likely extended by features such as increased chemical resistance. Why?
The pandemic has made us all keenly aware of how bacteria and viruses spread in shared spaces, so new materials would be important to ensure hygiene is always maintained.
There are two potential options for this. First, highly durable plastics could be used to ensure materials do not deteriorate due to consistent cleaning; they would be easy to clean, such as the PMMA Trinseo already creates for automotive exteriors.
The second option would be anti-microbial surfaces, which have self-disinfecting and self-cleaning properties. Trinseo is already meeting the demand for products like this with a variety of options tailored to consumer needs in the medical sector. Following regulatory and specification trends, some may find their way also into the automotive once.
Materials of the Future
As we look at manufacturing AVs, we need to think about what other challenges need to be overcome. Safety is of the utmost importance when we think about manufacturing any vehicle, but AV need special consideration because, in theory, there should no longer be accidents. If there are no accidents, do we need airbags? Do we need reinforced exterior plastics?
We don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but we can theorize that new materials could focus more on providing a cozy living room (or office) feeling, thus enabling the look and feel of high-end craftsmanship with less (or no) design emphasis on necessary head-impact requirements.
On the other hand, full-AV transportation offers the chance of movement inside the cabin. Even if that would only occur in form of rotating or fully reclining seats, high mechanical loads and complex kinematics would again increase the performance attributes of plastics.
AV will require a complete redesign of the car cabin that de-emphasizes a driver-oriented experience and refocuses on the driving environment. As we move beyond electric vehicles to AVs, we'll continue to explore new materials that meet consumer needs for personal transportation and ride sharing.
Coming back to trucks, they might not have a cabin at all. But the future AV cars might offer instead the most beautiful, comforting sanctuaries ever built by automotive history. This is an exciting time to be in the automotive industry as design philosophies are re-envisioned for a new era of vehicles.