Creating the Inviting Interior

Gary S. Vasilash

Bill Fluharty, vice president of Industrial Design at Johnson Controls, not surprisingly thinks that the focus on automotive interiors is well overdue. Some of the drivers for this change of perspective may be surprising.

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Given the frequency that OEMs are talking about interiors of late, you might think that they just noticed that people actually sit in cars and trucks. Those pronouncements are music to the ears of people like Bill Fluharty. That’s because he’s vice president of Industrial Design at Johnson Controls, one of the leading interiors and systems suppliers.

Asked for his take on what seems like a belated discovery, particularly late when it comes to U.S.-based OEMs, Fluharty answers by pointing to two aspects of vehicles that are still incredibly important with regard to vehicle development, two aspects that have pretty much eclipsed (until now, perhaps) the vehicle interior:

1. The exterior. Fluharty calls this “the image side of the automobile.” He explains, “From a marketing standpoint, it’s important to develop an exterior that will draw in the consumer. And when they sit in the vehicle, they like being seen in it because of what it projects about them.” So it is a matter of outside appearance being more important.

2. The engine. “During the last three years, American manufacturers have marketed more power, more power, more power. It’s a little of the NASCAR sensibility.” He adds that when it came to investment during the past decade, the money has been pretty much focused under the hood.

But now the market—as in the people who are going into the showrooms with a different agenda—is changing. There are new expectations, expectations about vehicle interiors.

This new focus is a consequence of at least two things, one automotive and the other not:

1. The European OEMs. “Lately, from a styling standpoint, the Germans—Audi, VW and BMW, in particular—have demonstrated an aesthetic that’s clean, elegant, and precision-fitting that the American consumer is drawn to,” Fluharty says.

2. Target stores. Fluharty points out that Target stores are educating consumers about good contemporary design by selling affordable products that have been designed by people including Michael Graves. “Then they sit in a Jetta, which is affordable and can be seen as elegant. Then if they sit in another vehicle that doesn’t have that look, they may be drawn back to the Jetta.”

Not surprisingly, Fluharty and his JCI colleagues are working on developing interiors that will provide consumers with a “complete environment,” one that has consistency—and quality—throughout. They have undertaken an approach that they’re labeling “Sensory,” which takes into account various perceived attributes of an interior—more than just the firmness of the seats and the color. For example, Fluharty says that while interior designers have long been concerned with touch as regards the selection of fabrics, plastics, and leathers, they are now examining alternative materials, such as pressure-sensitive textiles. These materials, for example, allow the standard pushbutton to be replaced. They’re calling these “ElekTex Controls.”

“We believe that lighting has been underutilized in the automotive environment,” he maintains. So not only are they looking at lighting hardware that can be deployed in vehicles (e.g., LEDs, electroluminscent panels), but also at how different lighting can affect the moods of drivers and passengers. Yes, this is a case of using light to do more than just make things visible.

According to Fluharty, if better interiors are going to be realized in vehicles, then it is important that “the entire organization is focused on craftsmanship or quality.” That is, as an interior moves from design through engineering and to manufacturing, each of those functions may be more concerned with doing their jobs in the best possible manner, and not take into account the consequence of their decisions on the overall objective: the focus shifts from pleasing the end customer to managing one’s piece of the business. For example, the person who is responsible for tooling may be intent on keeping his costs down; as a result, they’ll push, say, to modify the requirements so that there is less action in the tool. Good for him; not so good for the craftsmanship. “If there isn’t someone to remind him that that may result in a visible parting line, which will hurt the overall product because the customer will feel a rough edge when they may not have to, then that could happen.

“Someone has to shepherd the product,” he says.

Fluharty is not naïve. He understands one fact of turning designs into products: “There’s always compromise.” But he thinks that’s OK—if there is someone who is assuring that the quality design isn’t being negatively affected.

“If you set targets early and focus on the complete environment, you can figure out what areas the customer doesn’t care about and you can use less-expensive materials or simplify the design there. Then you can take that money and move it to surface and high-touch areas.”

At one point, Fluharty describes vehicle interiors as the “new frontier.” Perhaps American OEMs can blaze some new trails.