The aging of the U.S. population and strict SUV safety requirements will force dramatic changes in the way vehicle interiors are designed, says a panel of interior stylists at the Auto Interiors Show.

Roland Sternmann, executive design director, Audi Design Center-California, says as the 18 million U.S. Baby Boomers move into the 40-60-age range this year, designers will have to look at new ways to accommodate their varying needs.

This generation views the automobile as a symbol of personal freedom and youthfulness. Manufacturers will have to meet the demographic's needs by developing more niche vehicles, he says.

“These customers will be the crucial customer group for every car manufacturer for at least the next 40 years,” he says.

These buyers will be very finicky when it comes to quality, especially in interior surfacing, Sternmann says, and the use of the proper grains and natural materials will become even more paramount than they are today.

He predicts more vehicles similar in design to the Mercedes-Benz CLS, which features a coupe-like roofline in a 4-door package, will permeate the market and could result in the demise of the B-pillar.

On the other side of the spectrum are teenagers and young adults who will demand increased use of innovative materials and recyclable components. Their vehicles will have to transform themselves from coupes to roadsters and pickup trucks, much like the French Citroen Pluriel.

Mike Sweers, executive director of design at Toyota Motor Corp.'s Toyota Technical Center, veers from interior comfort to interior safety concerns. He says the biggest challenge for interior designers will be developing SUV interiors that provide improved protection during a side impact.

“Side-impact accidents account for 30% of all vehicle fatalities, and research has revealed that head injuries account for 59% of all side impact injury risk,” he says.

Auto makers and suppliers must work together to identify ways to develop improved head-energy management systems that effectively integrate into interior design schemes at an affordable cost.

Says Sweers: “I believe that SUV side impact is the greatest challenge existing in interior design.”