When Ralf Meyer-Wendt handed an iPad to his 3-year-old son recently, the child knew exactly what to do with the tablet computer.

The anecdote cemented his belief young consumers are primed and ready for a completely new, customizable approach to automotive interior lighting.

“The younger generation is trying to identify with brands, and they seek certain colors to identify themselves,” Meyer-Wendt, Federal-Mogul’s manager-global R&D lighting technology, tells WardsAuto in a recent interview. “Young people make connections between brands and colors, and they bring that back into the vehicle.”

The Mexican-born engineer, who has lived in Michigan for eight years, speaks Wednesday about interior lighting on an afternoon panel session at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars.

The session, Designing for Technology (and the Consumer), will focus on the ever-increasing blend of consumer electronics with automotive technologies at a time when many young people appear to be more interested in hand-held devices than in owning and driving vehicles.

Interior ambient lighting can provide the personal aspect many young people crave in their purchases, and color plays an important role in that dynamic, Meyer-Wendt says.

For instance, light-emitting diode-based ambient lighting, which is becoming common, has the flexibility to change color easily and with little added expense.

For a number of years, Ford vehicles have offered a switch for toggling through several different lighting colors for footwells, cupholders and map pockets in cars such as the Mustang.

The next step with ambient lighting, Meyer-Wendt says, is to connect smartphones with vehicle-lighting systems via Bluetooth so drivers can preset their preferred colors and even have them change depending on the time of day.

For instance, when approaching a vehicle at night with the key fob, the owner could set all the lights to be bright white for maximum safety.

“And the moment you open the door, the lights could change to amber color to be more welcoming,” he says. “Then you close the door and start the engine, and the lights could change to another color – whatever you picked ahead of time. And you can program the lights to fade in and out, without an abrupt change.”

Meyer-Wendt says it’s possible now to control vehicle interior lighting with smartphones, but the technology is expensive. Federal-Mogul is in talks with various auto makers and expects the technology to be available on production vehicles “within the next couple years,” he says.

Because smartphones also hold music files, ambient lighting can change depending on the type of songs being played.

“We can also switch colors depending on how someone is driving and where they are driving,” Meyer-Wendt says. “Colors influence your mood, so they can help you improve your driving conditions.”

If it’s raining, ambient lighting can change colors to improve visibility and help the driver stay more alert. “If it’s raining hard, you start stressing out,” he says. “A different color can help your eyes stay more alert to the road conditions around you.”

Red and deep orange are good colors for driving fast on the highway, while blue interior light has a calming effect and is good for relaxation.

“High-end vehicles tend to use soft white light because it is a symbol of purity and clarity,” says Meyer-Wendt, who is attending his first MBS in Traverse City, MI. “It’s very clean.”

Ambient lighting on dark 2-lane highways in the country needs to be dim, so it will not create reflections off the windows. “You don’t want it to be a distraction,” he says.

Overall, ambient lighting should not overpower but should be subtle.

“It should be enhancing color and should create the perception of a bigger space than you actually have,” he says. “The light needs to be smooth and balanced within the cabin. Even in the dark, you should be able to look outside and not see a reflection.”

The youth-oriented Kia Soul pioneered door-mounted speakers that pulsate red to the beat of the music. Meyer-Wendt finds the system unique and compelling, but he says it can be distracting.

“Right now, interior lighting is not federally regulated,” he says, but wonders if more vehicles with this type of feature would invite government intervention.

Federal-Mogul says it delivered the industry’s first ambient LED system for Chrysler minivans in 2006. The supplier entered the interior-lighting segment by way of its 1998 acquisition of Cooper Automotive.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com