Thursday, June 7, 2007

Carmakers tell the inside story

Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News

Stefan Donat of Ident Technology, left, and Vincent Verna of Mercedes-Benz check an interior.

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- Automobile interiors are the latest battleground in the war for the hearts and minds of car buyers, but they are also becoming more and more alike, a leading auto designer said Wednesday.

"There's a bit of a rut now in interiors," Ralph Gilles, head of one of the Chrysler Group's main design studios, said in a speech at the Ward's Auto Interiors Show at Cobo Center.

He challenged interior suppliers attending the show to help Chrysler and other automakers find their way out of it.

Although it was once easy to tell a Japanese interior from a European one, automakers' design from all regions have evolved in similar directions, Gilles said. But new materials and technologies offer opportunities to branch out, which Chrysler is trying to do.

"We've been focusing lately on distinguishing our brands from each other," he said.

So future Jeep products will have more functional interiors, while Dodge models will use more color.

But Gilles said cost pressures are prompting carmakers to shift more responsibility for interiors to suppliers, and worries about costs are making automaker-supplier relationships more adversarial.

"I want to change that," Gilles told suppliers, calling for more collaboration. "We're willing to have you guys own it as if it were your own project."

Many leading interior makers attended the Cobo conclave, where panel discussions focused on emerging issues such as new federal guidelines that require automakers to add active headrest safety systems to vehicles.

A number of suppliers set up booths to showcase everything from cutting-edge fabrics to new approaches to climate control.

Germany's Ident Technology AG showed off a new wireless system that uses electrical fields to determine whether dashboard controls are being operated by the driver or the passenger.

Ident spokesman Markus Raiser said the system can prevent passengers from accidentally changing important settings that affect vehicle operation, while allowing those same passengers to work navigation controls that would be unavailable to the driver for safety reasons.

"You can also use it to cut down the number of switches you have in the car," Raiser said, adding that the technology can be used to keep sliding doors from closing on fingers, create virtual controls on materials like wood and monitor the position of occupants to better deploy safety equipment like airbags.

In his speech, Gilles pointed to several emerging trends in interiors. White is in, along with other light colors -- even though lighter materials soil more easily. Ambient lighting is becoming more popular, and grain is emerging as an important tool for making synthetic components look more substantial and sophisticated.

"It's to me the absolute indicator of quality," Gilles said. "We have to design grain on the microscopic level."

But Gilles also said "real materials" like wood and chrome are making a comeback. At the same time, consumers are increasingly wowed by the use of recycled materials or natural materials from sustainable sources.

But new technologies do not come cheap and often require designers to make tough trade-offs. Gilles said incorporating an innovative in-dash cooler into the new Dodge Caliber required the designers to settle for a cheap plastic dash.

Analyst Erich Merkle of IRN Inc. said improving interiors is one way automakers can convey a sense of quality in their vehicles. "It's the contact point that the customer has with the vehicle," Merkle said. "Customers may not understand how the engine connects to the transmission, but they can appreciate quality interior materials."

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