DEARBORN, MI – Suppliers and automakers have loaded vehicle interiors with so much stuff that many in the industry are beginning to wonder if the content is impacting the well-being of customers.

“Simple can be harder than complex, (and) I think this is a lesson we need to learn in the automotive industry,” Panasonic Automotive’s James Grace, partially quoting Steve Jobs, says today during the 2014 WardsAuto Interiors Conference here.

Grace, director-Advanced Development, posits automakers and suppliers have lost the “car-ness” of the car by cramming vehicle interiors with technology, which most times isn’t easy to use and causes stress for the end user.

He gives examples of too-complex or useless infotainment features that offer little benefit to drivers or passengers, such as silly or redundant voice commands, gesture controls that require drivers and passengers to learn a sign language of sorts and traffic information that typically arrives after someone already has encountered gridlock and is not predictive.

Grace says Panasonic Automotive’s concept instrument panel is an effort to eliminate superfluous features and simplify necessary ones.

With the concept IP a center-stack screen is eliminated, using only a reconfigurable cluster or head-up display behind the steering wheel.

The cluster has four domains, audio, navigation, information and settings, each with a dropdown menu with limited options. There are no home or back buttons. Voice is used to enter a destination, or a driver can rely on their passenger to send them a destination from a smartphone app.

“Nobody uses their destination system in a car because it’s too damn complicated,” Grace says, adding automakers also need to make tough decisions on removing content.

Michael Crane, vice president-body and security, The Americas, for Continental, touts personalization as a way to increase driver well-being.

“Why can’t my car receive me in the same way a family member or pet may receive me?” he asks, relating stories about the warmness of returning home after a day’s work.

Crane notes comfort and convenience already rate higher than fuel economy as a purchase factor for new-car buyers. With that in mind, Continental foresees “predictive personalization” as a future growth opportunity for the auto industry.

“Over time we can create programs that give you imperceptible changes” in seating positions to increase alertness, or create a profile a person carries with them on their smartphone that can be loaded into whatever vehicle they’re driving, be it their own, their spouse’s or a rental.

The profile would set seating position as well as temperature, lighting, radio, and navigation preferences, eliminating the need to fiddle with controls.

In the rental-car experience, a customer using a smartphone to find and reserve a car would receive a digital key from a fleet manager to download. An exterior near-field communications read on the car would unlock the vehicle, and an interior NFC reader would allow personalization preferences to be set and the car to be started.

When the driver is finished with the car, he would get out, lock it and pay, all via his phone, then the digital key would be erased.

Another way in which the vehicle can be detrimental to driver or passenger well-being is its air quality.

Many Americans would be surprised to know most parts in their vehicle’s interior are painted, says Bruce Mulholland, global color technology manager for supplier Celanese.

“If we eliminate plastic-part painting inside cars, there is the environmental benefit of eliminating (volatile organic compounds),” says Mulholland, adding the new-car smell Americans traditionally have liked is the result of off-gassing from formaldehyde, ethylbenzene and xylene from painted parts as well as carpet, seat fabric and seat foam.

Interior VOC levels from parts painting vary depending on the colorant used and the finish applied, with the color violet and metallic or low-gloss finishes some of the worst offenders.

Celanese can do molded-in metallic color on parts, he says, noting such a process eliminates paint VOCs and “significantly reduces product VOCs.”

Mulholland is unsure if a totally VOC-free vehicle interior will ever be achievable, but notes regulations specifying VOC parts-per-million levels in interiors are getting “less and less all the time.”

He says the European auto industry once specified a VOC level of 10 PPM, in the late 1990s, but Asian manufacturers now must comply with emissions below 5 PPM.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com