Planes, trains and automobiles: Car interiors are set to undergo a RADICAL change
There’s a lot of talk about flying cars and how cars are set to become more like road-bound railways as transport evolves. Yet there’s a much more pervasive influence from these other forms of transport on cars and that’s the interior where you sit.
Aircraft and automotive design have always enjoyed a healthy crossover, often with cars benefitting from the advanced design and technology used in the aero industry. It has also helped that many car companies were or still are involved with making aircraft, so the cross pollination of ideas and design is inevitable.
The first real tech jump from the aero field to cars was in the immediate post-World War One era as more reliable and powerful engines found their way into automobiles. The furnace of war always pushes on design as countries seek an advantage over the enemy. At that point in history, building planes that could fly for longer, higher and more reliably was the goal and the ultimate victors were the car companies able to use this know-how to develop better cars. It’s no wonder the inter-war years were a golden period for land speed records.
The 1930s was also when aircraft design started to make itself known in the styling of cars and their interiors. While many of the shapes dreamed up by car designers claimed a link to aircraft, it was more in style than technology as the streamlined look was often more a triumph of penmanship over any ability to cut through the air with greater efficiency.
However, this period also saw the aero industry’s obsession with lightweight materials begin to influence car interiors. Simple tubing for seat frames, early plastics and enclosed cabins all became common. This set the pattern for what we still know and use today, albeit in a much more refined form.
Looking into the not too distant future, car interiors are set to undergo a radical change. Not so much in the materials used but in the layout as autonomous technology exerts a bigger pull on the industry and its designers.
Regardless of where you sit in the debate about autonomous technology, it is being used more and more in cars. Fully autonomous or driverless cars remain a long way off and even the boldest of advocates for this type of vehicle admit it’s at least five years away from becoming any sort of practical reality.
As car companies plan years in advance, this means they are looking at how autonomous tech can and will change the inside of the cars we’ll be leasing in a few years’ time. As with the past, a good deal of that is being inspired by the cabins of planes and trains.
Why? Well, aircraft and trains are much more communal spaces than cars and they already offer more facilities for their occupants. As the act of driving is set to become secondary or even redundant with fully autonomous vehicles, so the interior architecture is freed up from the traditional layout with a steering wheel and controls placed around a driver.
Think about that for a moment. With no need for a driver, there’s no need for a dashboard with instruments, dials, gauges, buttons and controls. With none of that required, it also means the front occupants of a vehicle no longer need to sit facing forward – they can enjoy conversing with other passengers while seated looking towards one and other. Just like on a train.
There are already plenty of car companies exploring this theme with cabins that are much more like a compact living room or office suite or even sleeping quarters. If it all sounds fanciful, take a peek at the business or first class section of any long-haul flight and you’ll get a clear idea of what’s possible in a small space. George Clarke has nothing on how airlines package so much into a restricted amount of room yet still make it feel accommodating and inviting.
It’s a neat trick and one that rail operators have also cottoned on to. Have a look at the latest sleeper trains on offer in many countries and they are more like scaled down boutique hotels than the clattery old carriages of not so long ago. Every form of transport now has to compete against each other to attract our custom and cars are no different. While we’ve traditionally chosen cars based on factors such as performance, economy and equipment like stereos and alloy wheels, this will change.
Sit in a modern aircraft or the latest generation of railway carriage and you have access to wifi, Bluetooth, climate-controlled comfort, more seat space and the ability to eat, sleep, relax, work, recline or even exercise on the move. It changes the whole notion of travel from an essentially sedentary passing of time to one where we use that time to do something more constructive and enjoyable.
It’s certain that some cars will keep their focus on the driver just as plenty do right now. There will be keen drivers who want enthusiast machines for years to come and auto makers who will satisfy this need. For the drudgery of the daily commute, though, sitting in a vehicle that does the hard graft for you while you get on with answering emails, reading a book or snoozing holds great appeal. This is where car interior design will certainly follow that of the aero and railway businesses.
We can see this clearly in the likes of the Tesla Model 3 with its sleek minimalism. It may not be fully autonomous yet, but cars like the Tesla and plenty of others being launched are taking the emphasis away from driving and placing it on enjoying the journey instead of the act of controlling the car.
You may wonder if all of this is practical and if you wouldn’t be better off just catching a train. The answer is the car will have a valid place in the future of transport for many decades to come as we already have the infrastructure of roads and parking. We will also still need that personal transport, whether it’s to take us on the entire journey or as part of a joined-up travel system. So, look forward to sitting back, relaxing and letting the car take the strain.