Autonomous, driverless concept cars shift future design focus to interiors

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Coming technologies, most notably electrification and autonomous driving, are opening exciting new possibilities for those designing cabins.

Within the next three years most major car makers will have electric models on sale. Many will be designed around so-called skateboard architecture, with the batteries sandwiched in the floor structure, keeping the weight low and providing far less intrusion into the cabin. This is even more pronounced if the electrical motors are fitted within the wheels.

“The electrification revolution means there is no longer any need for ‘horse and carriage’ design,” said Aston Martin’s chief creative officer, Marek Reichman, at the recent launch of the Lagonda Vision Concept.

“This vehicle shows the scope of design opportunities that open up once you no longer need to provide space for a large power source directly in front of the passenger compartment,” says Reichman. “The batteries occupy the floor of the car. Everything above that line belongs to us.”

Aston Martin’s Lagonda Vision Concept foreshadows the brand’s relaunch.
Aston Martin’s Lagonda Vision Concept foreshadows the brand’s relaunch.

Cavernous interiors

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With this new freedom, Reichman and his team have presented a fresh interpretation of an automotive interior. This goes beyond the materials used, though they are interesting, with ceramic, silk and cashmere surfaces, rather than the usual leather and wood. Savile Row tailors Henry Poole worked on the hand-woven wool seats.

The really big changes in the electric Lagonda are structural. The interior is cavernous, even allowing for the limousine-like exterior dimensions. The steering wheel disappears when the car is in autonomous mode. At that point the front seats can swivel 180 degrees for face-to-face socialising.

Lagonda, established in 1906, has been a sister brand of Aston Martin since the 1940s. The badge has appeared sporadically in recent decades, but Lagonda is being relaunched as an “all-electric luxury brand” to take on Rolls-Royce at the very top of the market. Aston Martin has confirmed that the first model, an SUV, will be on sale by 2021, with a sedan likely to follow two years later.

The provision of a part-time steering wheel and pedals in the concept car suggests Level 4 autonomy. This means the car will mostly drive itself but a human may need to take over in certain circumstances.

The 5.2 metre-long Nucleus concept car by Italian design house Icona has no front or rear windscreen, no mirrors, no ...
The 5.2 metre-long Nucleus concept car by Italian design house Icona has no front or rear windscreen, no mirrors, no driver controls.

Level 5 autonomy – which some believe is possible in shared city-based “robotaxis” by 2020 – requires no driver controls at all, and will afford interior designers even greater freedoms.

No driver required

Italian design house Icona recently presented the Nucleus, its interpretation of a Level 5 luxury vehicle. With in-wheel electric motors, it provides an interior not only extraordinarily large, but an asymmetric seating layout far more like a lounge room than a cockpit.

Samuel Chuffart, the Turin company’s global design director, invited Luxury to sit inside the concept car so he could explain the features. Electric packaging changes everything, he says, while autonomy means the end to the “cinema-like way everyone looks through the windscreen”.

The lavish interior of Icona's Nucleus is fitted with tables, a large video screen, armchairs and a couch.
The lavish interior of Icona’s Nucleus is fitted with tables, a large video screen, armchairs and a couch.

The 5.2 metre-long Nucleus has no front or rear windscreen, no mirrors, no driver controls. The lavish six-seater interior is fitted with tables, a large video screen, armchairs and a couch. The single entry point, via a lift-up “oyster” door, enables entry without any bending or twisting.

“Instead of everyone having the same seat we can make something much more customisable,” says Chuffart, leaning back in a blue armchair. “I consider the possibility you will be able to remove the seat belts, at least for some of the time, like an airplane.”

Rise of the robotaxi?

An alternative approach, but just as radical, is the Renault EZ-GO Concept “robotaxi”. Designed to be a shared city vehicle, and to run all day and night, it’s almost the same size as the Icona and also has a lift-up roof.

The lift-up roof of the Renault EZ-GO Concept means the cabin can also accommodate wheelchairs and strollers.
The lift-up roof of the Renault EZ-GO Concept means the cabin can also accommodate wheelchairs and strollers.

Inside, it’s less lavish but more practical. There’s park bench-style seating so that the cabin can also accommodate strollers, wheelchairs and shopping bags. Luxury sat in the EZ-GO with Stéphane Janin, Renault’s director of concept cars, and discovered an interior that feels light, airy and stylish (unfortunately we couldn’t drive anywhere).

“It is not a bus, it is something new,” says Janin. “Cities are asking for something very invisible. The EZ-GO is very transparent [because of its large glass area] and very low for a roomy six-seater.

“If you go for pure functionality you will have a big box. We wanted to find something much more friendly.” He says ideally the EZ-GO would be owned by a city government, or perhaps Renault itself. “It could become the new black cab, something iconic for a city.”

Janin says users will have more respect for something with flair. “That’s why we have quality fabrics, we have the wood on the floor to remind us a little of old Parisian apartments. When the kids are bored they can play on the floor with their toys.”

The Renault EZ-GO Concept robotaxi would complement public transport.
The Renault EZ-GO Concept robotaxi would complement public transport.

The EZ-GO, he says, would complement not replace public transport. “It is door-to-door, better for disabled people, mothers with children, and so on. If you want to pay a bit more you can have it just for you and your family, not in pool mode.”

Plans include a booking app allowing a user to share only with other females late at night, for example, and a sightseeing mode for tourists.

And for enthusiasts who want a car they can drive and not a lounge room that they can’t, Icona’s Samuel Chuffart believes that Level 5 cars is not the only possible future. “There is a lot of talk about whether we are going to prohibit people, who can make mistakes, from driving, instead of a safe computer.

“I hope the future is not like that, I hope the future is plural: people can enjoy driving a classic car if they want to, or relax in a Level 5 car if they want that.”





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