On the second floor of a converted Michigan furniture factory, French seat-maker Faurecia is contemplating the future of vehicle interiors.
If Faurecia's ideas are any indication, prepare for a radically different future.
Matthew Benson, who leads strategy for Faurecia Ventures, shows a visitor to a wooden mock-up of a multipurpose vehicle cabin. It is the automotive equivalent of a Lego set, with panels, boxes and consoles that can be reconfigured in endless combinations.
The MPV reveals, among other features, a trick center console that can drop from the usual position to lie flush with the floor. That gives the driver room to rotate his or her seat to face the passengers — as the vehicle is moving.
"The mock-ups sometimes look like ridiculous contraptions because they aren't meant to represent how we would actually engineer a real vehicle," Benson clarifies. "The point is to get feedback about the way consumers experience the feature before we spend time engineering it."
Dubbed xWorks Innovation Center, the studio here allows the supplier to design its cockpits to meet the biggest challenge now facing the world's auto industry: the expected arrival in the next decade of self-driving cars.
With sales last year of $20.7 billion, Faurecia is jostling with Lear Corp., Adient, Magna International Inc. and others for contracts to produce seats and other parts for driverless cars.
Faurecia believes it has an edge. During the recession, the Paris supplier held onto its interiors division at a time when its rivals were selling theirs.
If these cockpits of the future prove to be clean-sheet exercises, controlling the various pieces could be a real advantage. If autonomous vehicles require a reimagining of airbags, consoles, seats, instrument panels and driver controls, someone still needs to have mastery of integrating all of that into a harmonious whole.
That is Faurecia's sales pitch, and the Holland studio is the tip of its spear.
The studio, which opened in 2006, houses a 12-person team that includes engineers, consumer researchers, industrial designers, market researchers and business analysts.
Benson's strategy team is trying to figure out what motorists will want to do in their self-driving cars. Will they watch videos? Work on their laptops? Listen to music? Read a magazine? Snooze?
When the team wants to test a concept, it builds a mock-up and hosts focus groups to critique it, Benson said.
The team is studying seven scenarios for driverless cars, which include a full-size hybrid SUV, a small electric car, a robotaxi and a compact shuttle bus.
During a June visit by Automotive News, the researchers were tinkering with a D-segment MPV mock-up. A small camera was clipped to its instrument panel while an infrared sensor was perched behind the steering wheel.
The sensors hinted at a fairly conventional approach for monitoring driver alertness, but the instrument panel was a more radical design departure. Its compact dimensions offered generous legroom for front passengers, which could be possible only if air ducts and other behind-the-dash components were shrunk or eliminated.
Faurecia has devoted some thought to this. At the Detroit auto show in 2016, the company displayed thin-profile air vents, dubbed DecoVent, that would leave more dashboard space for infotainment gadgetry. But that's only a partial fix.
Faurecia is visualising space and flexibility solutions from every corner of the interior. A climate-control system might need to have its compressor repositioned under the floor. Dashboard air vents will have to be reimagined. The standard approach of blowing cool air from the front of the car may prove ineffective if the front occupants have swung around to face the rear ones.
But Faurecia doesn't produce climate-control systems. In January, Faurecia CEO Patrick Koller told Automotive News that he wants to form an alliance with a supplier of such systems.
"If you rotate your seat, you can't have a conventional airflow running from front to rear," Koller said. "You have to adapt everything to your position."
Alternatives might include roof-mounted ducts or perhaps heating and cooling elements in each seat.
Koller did not name potential collaborators.
Rethinking such interior designs is one thing — putting them onto the market is another. Benson was noncommittal about whether Faurecia is in commercial development on these radical ideas. But he did confirm that rotating seats are under discussion.
"Can you get your legs past the console so that you can be together with other passengers?" Benson asks of the new design mission. "We are talking to our customers about this."
Yet another issue: A conventional driver's seat is most comfortable in an upright position, Benson says. But what if the motorist wants to take a nap? A luxury vehicle might have a dozen adjustments to accommodate a driver snooze. But that represents new challenges in interior layout, greater costs in electronics and even some concern about future customer satisfaction, given the spectrum of possible relaxation preferences.
Six months ago, the Holland team organised a focus group to delve into more intuitive seat controls, said Jim Hotary, who leads the xWorks center. Participants were told that Faurecia had invented a computerised smart seat that could adjust itself by reading a passenger's gestures. The "computer" actually was an intern stationed in another room who watched the participants on a video monitor, guessed their intentions and adjusted the seat remotely.
The focus group yielded some ideas for gesture controls, which Faurecia is evaluating. The company also might revive a smartphone app developed five years ago — called SmartFit — to help motorists find a comfortable seat position. SmartFit users enter their height, weight and gender and also provide photos of themselves so the app can ascertain their posture. The smartphone transmits the data to the vehicle, which adjusts the seat automatically.
While Faurecia has the expertise to design seats, instrument panels, consoles and door panels, it can't do everything. One key component that Faurecia doesn't produce is airbags. If an automaker wants rotating front seats, traditional dashboard-mounted airbags won't properly protect the passengers.
That is why Faurecia formed a partnership in May with ZF TRW, the world's No. 3 airbag supplier. ZF and Faurecia want to design new types of airbags to protect passengers in swiveling seats. At the time, Koller ballyhooed the partnership as a key part of his cockpit of the future.
Last year, Faurecia purchased a 20% share of Paris infotainment supplier Parrot Automotive — a deal that could make Faurecia its largest shareholder by 2019.
Koller also wants to gain expertise in artificial intelligence so that Faurecia can design a smart cockpit that knows when to return the motorist to a proper driving position.
"If you're not in a driving position, how much time is needed to get you back into a safe driving position?" Koller asked. "Is it a minute? Is it less? You can only predict that if you can analyze information about weather conditions, traffic and anything else that represents a risk."
In January, Koller said his company has landed three development contracts to produce complete vehicle interiors. He declined to identify the customers.
As vehicle cockpits gain complexity, Koller believes automakers will turn to mega-suppliers such as Faurecia to integrate the interiors. If so, Faurecia's R&D center in Holland is going to be kept very busy.
"There are dozens of technologies that we are sorting through to see how they play together," Benson said. "We are working with everything that is out there."