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You'll be hard-pressed to find an ugly car in any showroom these days. The exteriors are that good. It is inside today's rides where the design story has become more critical to the success of a new vehicle in the marketplace.

The cabin is where you live. The seats must be right for comfort and safety. Sound systems must reproduce music and talk with crystal-clear precision. The technology must be useful, modern, attractive, user-friendly, well executed and most importantly, adaptable to the rapidly changing nature of consumers' high-tech tools – particularly smartphones, but also tablets and other portable electronic devices.

"If you think about typical differentiators 30 years ago – fuel economy, quality, safety, reliability – those have largely converged," says Reid Bigland, FCA Canada president and CEO. "Now, design and style are playing a much more prominent role."

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The best cabins have excellent but subtle detailing – wood, chrome, aluminum trim, rich stitching – and while that visual appeal is an important factor in buying decisions, today a car must have simple-to-operate Bluetooth connectivity, and it must pair deftly with your smartphone.

Your car is no longer just a tool to get you from here to there, but a full-fledged technology platform. With 2.3 billion smartphones in use globally, consumers are demanding seamless integration with their vehicles – whether it's an Apple or an Android phone or anything else that may come into fashion during the lifetime of a vehicle.

General Motors is partnering with Apple and Google to offer CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility in a growing list of models because "for most of us, our smartphones are essential," says CEO Mary Barra.

Volvo Canada marketing vice-president Margareta Mahlstedt says the 2016 Volvo XC90 exemplifies how car companies are re-thinking their vehicles from the inside out – focusing on the driver's needs without creating extra distractions.

"Interfaces must be streamlined and very simple to use," says Mahlstedt. "What you see right in front of you is what you need to know right now. And what you see [in the touchscreen to the right of the driver] is what you may want to know, but not all the time. The transition from one to the other is very seamless for the driver."

Dave Gardner, Honda Canada vice-president of operations, points to the upcoming Acura NSX as a modern "halo" car. "The root of what we're doing is all about the driver – making the driver a better operator," he says.

It's one thing for a driver to be better informed, another to be overwhelmed by the volume of information, so designers are trying to make space-saving touchscreens safer and simpler to use. GM's CUE technology, for instance, gives finger-feedback to users of the touchscreen – the user knows something is happening from a tactile, not just a visual, point of view.

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To eliminate distractions caused by manually operated controls, most if not all car makers will offer smart voice commands within the next five years. They'll enable users to use natural language, even colloquialisms with regional accents, and still get the controls to respond.

Another recent development: reconfigurable digital displays. Chevrolet's current Corvette super car has a gauge cluster than can change on command to reflect driving styles and information needs. Electronic controls allow designers to create bigger displays, in colour and with sophisticated 3-D graphics. Head-up displays are another tool to reduce driver distractions.

Electronics allow designers to experiment with new approaches to cabin design that eschew traditional items like the centre stack. Audi's designers, for instance, have done away with the centre stack in the latest TT. Instead, information is concentrated in the instrument cluster – from road speed and fuel level, to 3-D route maps, sound system controls, smartphone information and more.

And the TT is also entertaining to drive. Car design from the inside out need not mean the end to an enjoyable ride. But you can be connected and safe all the way there.

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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