Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – Auto makers looking for ways to hike their customer-satisfaction scores should focus their attention down and to the right.

Designers who figure out a better center-console configuration will win the hearts of car buyers, panelists agree at a session on “Consumer Wants and Needs” at the Ward’s Automotive Interiors Conference here.

Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director-vehicle consulting research for J.D. Power and Associates, says consumers are bringing an awful lot with them when they enter a vehicle, and the center console – where most of these items end up – isn’t doing a great job of storing and providing easy access to them.

“The center console is the object of least satisfaction for customers,” VanNieuwkuyk says. “It’s just a big hole.”

Pat Murray, president of Murray Design LLC, agrees. “Center consoles are not what they need to be,” he says.

VanNieuwkuyk says Americans now spend an average of 2 hours and 52 minutes in their cars each weekday and pile up a total of 18.34 hours each week behind the wheel. They’re bringing more items with them when they do, and they want the interior to provide the functionality to store and operate them easily.

“We’ve done a great job on the flexibility side,” he says, citing fold-in-the-floor seating in minivans. “But we’re falling short on functionality.”

As proof consumers will pay for functionality, he cites growing installation rates for such functional features as steering-wheel controls, which have increased from 53% in 2006 to 72% in 2009, and rear-view cameras, up from 5% three years ago to 21%.

HomeLink-type features that allow drivers to open their garage door and turn home lights on via a button in the car have grown from 14% to 24%.

“In every one of these cases, consumer satisfaction is boosted,” VanNieuwkuyk says.

But more basic needs remain to be met, he adds. “Some simple things are not being addressed.”

Among the top 10 items people bring with them into a vehicle – and often can’t find a convenient place to put them – are cell phones, pens/pencils, sunglasses, wallets, tissues, loose change, CDs/DVDs and garage-door openers, according to J.D. Power surveys. Women have purses with them 90% of the time, VanNieuwkuyk says.

Most things end up in a tangle in the center console, with cell phones often lodged in cupholders and purses stashed on the front passenger seat or thrown less conveniently in the back.

“A woman’s purse needs to be accessible,” Murray says. “If we don’t provide space for it in the console, we are in trouble.”

Panelists say in addition to designing clever center consoles, there may be room that can be freed up on the instrumental panel for new features.

Richard Vaughan, design leader for Visteon Corp., says suppliers of car audio equipment should expect declining demand as in-dash head units are replaced by mobile devices that simply connect with the car.

There may be additional opportunities to clear some of the unnecessary clutter that exists now, says Murray, who characterizes today’s IPs as “over-contented.”

“There’s a lot of Malibu beachfront property that could freed up,” he says. “If we can get to the point where we know what has to be on an IP, then maybe we can get there.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com