A look at future interiors with JCI I'll admit, auto interiors weren't high on my radar screen until I found my 18-mile commute taking well over an hour and 15 minutes. I've actually started to read the newspaper on my "drive" home.

It's either that, or drivers are gunning down Automation Alley with all the insolence of a lawyer's child. Fear and discomfort: This is how I have come to appreciate more in a vehicle than merely its torque curve. Safety and comfort now are qualifiers in my gestalt assessment of automobiles.

As it turns out, I'm not the only one spending more time in my car. The U.S. Dept. of Transportation says more than 80% of all long trips (100 miles or more) in the U.S. are taken in motor vehicles. Cars, trucks and vans are the preferred choice of travel even for trips up to 2,000 miles. Also, Americans take 1 billion long-distance trips each year, twice as many as they took 20 years ago.

With that much seat time, how much more comfort and safety can consumers expect?

My quest for enlightenment took me to Plymouth, MI, to the advance design center of Johnson Controls Inc. The team there was eager to show me its wares, starting with a prototype smart air bag system that's set up on a Lincoln LS sedan.

"We've partnered with a well-known safety supplier, Autoliv Inc., to develop a system that works in the front seat. This one will actually surpass what's required by regulation," says Robert Munson, manager-product planning/business development.

Using strain gages, the seat is used to weigh the occupant. Ultrasonic sensors inside the vehicle's A-pillar, center console and headliner detect where the occupant is positioned in the seat. When the occupant leans forward, the smart system classifies him into a "cautionary zone," which would reduce the force of air bag deployment in a collision. As a passenger's face nears the dashboard, the system turns the air bag completely off. The sensors also determine if there is a front- or rear-facing child seat in position, and the system then modifies air bag deployment accordingly.

"Law requires by 2004 to have some type of system that can classify the occupant. The OEMs would like to do it earlier, and so would we, but it's a real stretch," says Mr. Munson.

"Putting these strain gauges inside the seat is a major challenge because we really have to tear apart the seat structure, put these devices in a sensitive location where they can gather all the weight information, and have that seat as structurally sound as it was before."

Next, JCI has installed what it calls a "Vibro-Tactile" message system in the LS. It's like having a Swiss masseuse in your car. Currently, seat-massagers are an aftermarket rage.

But JCI plans to double down on the pleasure principal and integrate the occupant's body as a receiver for messages from the car - via the seat-massager. An example of this is the Driver Alert Sensor.

A sensor in the headliner detects the center of gravity in the driver's head. If the driver begins to nod off, the sensor is activated. "We want to wake up the driver. Our research has shown us that vibration is a very effective way of stimulating people," Mr. Munson says.

This "Vibro-Tactile" feedback will be used for other things, too. Low fuel? A little shake or shimmy of the seat and the driver's attention is all yours. And if a car can ever figure out for itself that it's swerving out of a lane, this vibration could alert the driver.

A key benefit of this system is that it doesn't divert a driver's eyes down to the instrument cluster - eyes stay on the road. When nothing is awry, the mild stimulation of the massager is pure bliss.

In the backseat of the LS, JCI has a standard-size seatbelt that inflates to 6 ins. (152 mm) upon impact. The benefit is three-fold: it serves as a pretensioner securing the occupant into position upon impact, supports the occupant's back during side impact and reduces seatbelt-to-body force.

Other future features and trends coming, says Ronald Bedro, director-product planning/business development, include:

* Seat cooling - It'll be more popular than heating and more affordable in a decade or so.

* Lighter materials, higher-strength steels and lightweight composite cushions are appearing now and will continue to improve.

* Recyclability - In Europe it's a law and it will be in the U.S., too. Suppliers will have to take back components for recycling just as OEMs will be taking back autos. OEMs already are asking JCI, Lear Corp. and others to be ready for this.

In terms of colors, expect to see lighter tones, more use of accent color and brighter "optimistic" yellows, greens and blues, says Mary Clark-Darnell, a cloth and color expert with JCI.

"The key driver behind this is youth. The under-35 crowd now outnumbers the over-35 crowd, and they want their interiors more interesting and exciting," says Ms. Clark-Darnell.

Consumers want honesty in the look and feel of their leather seats, she says. So natural imperfections, such as fat wrinkles, are now being considered a mark of individuality.

And if you want to look further down the road, pay particular attention to the fashion, home decorating and athletic equipment industries. That's where the professionals look for the next automotive interior design trends.