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Connectivity and Design

Auto design continues to change with the emergence of connected vehicle technology.

By James Amend

Page 14

Designers at automakers and suppliers from Ann Arbor to Auburn Hills and from Dearborn to Detroit are taking on a perplexing new challenge with the emergence of connected cars and the promise of autonomous driving: They’re tasked with penciling in all of tomorrow’s technologies, but making sure it’s imperceptible to the customer. Oh, and keeping those designs fresh, exciting and original.

connectivity and design pull quote“A big piece of it is the ability to integrate all the sensors and radars and everything, and if we can do that elegantly we’ll be successful,” said Bryan Nesbitt, executive director of global Buick design and global architectures at General Motors.

“That means there’s a lot of work up front,” added Nesbitt, whose sedans and SUVs feature some of the industry’s latest advanced driver assist systems and smartphone connectivity. “The more we understand the story, the better we can do. And as we get more and more of those features customers really value, the more seamlessly we can integrate them.”

The cartoonish-looking Google self-driving car, where the onus has been almost entirely on hardware and software integration rather than styling, illustrates the demands designers will face in the coming years.

But there’s yet another bit of rough road they must negotiate. To spur bigger profits, automakers are sharing more parts and components, such as seats and audio systems, across vehicle lines, brands and regions. That limits the palette of colors, textures, materials and surface treatments designers have to choose from. In short, they’re asked to deliver one or maybe two executions of a part that will look at home in dozens of different vehicles.

Parrish Hanna, global director of interaction and ergonomics at Ford, saw the automaker’s Sync 3 system through just that scenario. Sync 3 launched this past summer on the 2016 Ford Escape and Fiesta, and is also currently available on the 2016 models of the F-150, Mustang and Transit. Sync 3 will migrate to the rest of the North American lineup of vehicles by the end of 2016 and will roll out globally by the end of 2017.

“We also had to make (Sync 3) harmonious with all the other components in the vehicle, some that will change and some that may not change from vehicle to vehicle. That’s tricky,” he said. Hanna said the goal was to offer Ford owners a safe, seamless experience without the frustrating learning curve plaguing many next-gen automotive technologies. Early reviews of the system are favorable.

“The best design is invisible, right?” Hanna said. “But the biggest success will come from people not thinking about the interface itself and just having a simple, quick and efficient experience.”

With this generation of Sync, Ford relied on iterated design and took a customer-centric approach, drawing on 22,000 customer comments and suggestions to develop an intuitive and user-friendly system.

“At the end of the day, people just want to go from point A to point B, perhaps make a call or listen to some music, and we don’t want (design) to get in the way,” he said. “And there will be something about the totality of the car that will change as a result. Interaction with digital media is going to be critical, even more than today, to the future satisfaction of vehicles.”

rob huber pulled quote

Faurecia sees a future where connected and autonomous vehicles provide drivers with an opportunity to recharge their batteries. The global parts-supplying giant and interiors expert has introduced a new seating concept called “Active Wellness.” It’s the world’s first seat that detects a driver’s level of drowsiness or stress and then takes countermeasures to relieve those conditions.

“The idea comes from the initial thought of how to make someone in the vehicle feel better over time,” said Rob Huber, vice president of innovation at Faurecia.

“And to do that, you have to have intimate knowledge of their state of health and well-being.”

Faurecia uses unique sensors embedded in the seat to detect the driver’s, or a passenger’s, heart and respiratory rates. Medical research was factored into the algorithm that’s used in the system to determine what therapy it should offer to the occupant, including massage patterns, and heated or cooled ventilation to promote well-being. The seat will then ask the user if they want to engage a recommended therapy after measuring their condition.

The system’s sensors are already in use by the health care industry, which should keep costs at a minimum; however, expect it on high-end vehicles before it trickles down to volume cars and trucks. The seat innovation also will help in autonomous driving situations by re-engaging the driver with the car safely. Faurecia is also researching ways to minimize motion sickness, an anticipated side-effect of self-driving cars.

James Amend is an associate editor at