Family hauler. Taxi. Work truck. In the past, those have all been distinct vehicle types, tailored to their particular assignments.
But increasingly, car owners expect versatility from a single vehicle. With that in mind, global supplier Magna International has designed vehicle interiors that can be configured with the touch of a smartphone screen.
In a preview of its plans for CES in January, the company based in Aurora, Ont., showcased several of these flexible seating positions — and the ease involved in changing them — at an event last week in suburban Detroit. Together, they underscored the importance of interior innovations at a time when car owners can use their vehicles for everything from cargo-hauling to making a few extra dollars by driving for ride-hailing services.
"You can't say 'This is only for long trips,' and 'This is only for transit to my office,' and 'This is something for getting stuff on the weekend,' " said Swamy Kotagiri, Magna's chief technology officer. "You need something that addresses most use cases, and this is where connectivity comes in."
Operating from a base configuration for a standard three-row vehicle on long rails embedded in the floor, Magna's seating team showed how the seats could slide and swivel into three configurations selected via smartphone.
In Cargo Space mode, the rear two rows of seats fold and press forward to maximize the rear cargo area. In Road Trip mode, the three second-row seats turn to face the rear row; Magna envisions this configuration encouraging conversation between occupants, as if they were sitting around a campfire. Those two modes would be ready to enter production as early as 2022, Kotagiri said.
A third mode, Mobile Meeting, might be further away. In this configuration, the front two seats — including the driver's — turn to face the interior, while second-row seating pivots to the side of the vehicle. All eight seats are facing inward, creating an office boardroom-style environment.
That mode presents steep challenges for seat-belt and airbag systems that need to protect side-facing occupants in the event of a crash.
Yet alternatives to interior design are clearly of interest to automakers and tech companies preparing for an era of fully self-driven cars. One of Magna's partners in fleshing out ideas for that autonomous future is Lyft. In March, Magna invested US$200 million in the ride-hailing service and made plans to build its self-driving systems for fully driverless operation. Lyft didn't have a specific hand in the three seating positions, though Kotagiri says the company has contributed similar ideas.
"We've had a lot of interaction with them," he said. "Just like we've talked to different consumers on pain points, they're a good input for us on ride-sharing and ride-hailing requirements."
Magna's seating division accounted for US$5.3 billion in global revenues in 2017, according to the company. The unit is known for pioneering the Stow 'n Go seating in Chrysler minivans starting in 2004.
As it envisions an automated future, Magna prioritized pragmatic applications for the near term, which could be built upon later, rather than starting with fanciful concepts.
"Magna's seating innovation is driven by the belief that while the vehicle occupant experience will be very different with the introduction of mobility and autonomy, the functional basics will remain the same," said Mike Bisson, president of Magna Seating. "Passengers want convenience, flexibility and comfort."
Along those lines, Magna wants its configurable seats to appeal to car owners who not only might use their vehicles to make extra money driving for ride-hailing services, but also those who might consider other forms of sharing, such as renting their cars to delivery fleets or other individuals, after they've commuted to the office.
Reconfigurable seats might be a centrepiece of such a plan, and transforming the cabin with a push of a button makes it easy. But Magna is thinking about other requirements, such as transfer of ownership for a set time, whether cars would be returned to the same parking spaces, usage-based insurance standards and more.
One thing they haven't yet engineered is figuring out how car owners would clean up vehicles and schlep away their stuff while others use their vehicles. At least for now, that squarely remains the work of humans.