DEARBORN, MI – The increasing demand for in-car infotainment devices and features not only is changing the way vehicle interiors look and operate, it is changing the way they are designed.

General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen designers here for the 2012 WardsAuto Interiors Conference say the vehicle-engineering process is and will continue to evolve around infotainment, now the dominant force driving interior styling.

Robert Gelardi, design manager-North America for Ford, says at present, vehicles continue to be designed and engineered along two paths, the physical and virtual, meaning the basic structure and interior packaging is defined and everything else is forced to fit within that framework.

As evidence, he points to the commonality of nearly all vehicle instrument panels today, which universally consist of left-to-right air vents, gauges, a center stack with more vents on either side, passenger-side knee bolster and another air vent.

“Even though everyone is trying to follow a different path (in infotainment), all systems exist within this common architecture,” Gelardi says.

Merging the physical and virtual engineering paths will free designers to think differently about interior layouts. “The goal is to set up an architecture based on our experience of what customers want.”

Creating new interior concepts built around, not just accommodating, infotainment systems will pull in younger buyers who are more interested in consumer electronics and social media than cars.

“We need to engage a customer base that is now apathetic,” he says. Whichever auto maker figures out the right infotainment formula will be “the one everyone will be following in the next decade.

“This will be the next paradigm shift.”

Gelardi won’t say when the market will see the first Ford with an interior design fully driven by infotainment. But he says the auto maker’s vehicle-development process already is changing with that endgame in mind.

“There’s (now) no separation between people working on volumes (packaging) and the driver interface,” he says. “And they are always working with the electronics team.”

Jason Diehl, design manager-Cadillac User Experience (CUE), says GM followed a new path in developing the infotainment system debuting on ’13 SRX, XTS and ATS, cross-pollinating its industrial and user-interface design teams to ensure “a seamless look and feel.”

The system was developed after exhaustive customer research and testing, Diehl says, and all future Cadillac interior designs will be CUE-driven.

“We created walls and walls of information,” the GM designer says, showing a picture of a wall covered in post-it notes. “We created scenarios of the day in the life of a various customers. Then we came up with design ideas to solve the needs of that person.”

Volkswagen says it has added an Interface Dept. at its California design studio because of the growing importance of infotainment and how it is changing interior architectures.

“It’s opening up new avenues,” Jae Min, executive design director-Volkswagen Group of America, says of the impact of electronics on interior design.

Designers say future interiors will incorporate advanced head-up displays, have multiple display screens directed at either driver or passenger or both and operate system via touch, voice commands or a wave of the hand.

Continental’s Susan Drescher, product manager-interior, instrumentation and driver HMI, says the future will see new materials that can be used as active-sensing surfaces, such as wood, glass and metal.

And all designers foresee connectivity between the car and the cloud to maximize computing power and bring the latest content and apps into the vehicle.

“There’s a ton of cool stuff out there,” Diehl notes.

dzoia@wardsauto.com