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No More Designing for Lowest Common Denominator

Ford and GM talk interiors at the 11th annual Auto Interiors Show.

Ford and General Motors sent their top interior designers to a conference in Detroit to reaffirm both automakers’ commitments to innovative interior quality and design. Speaking as part of a panel discussion at the 11th annual Auto Interiors Show, David Rand, executive director, design, interiors, quality and brand character for General Motors, says the automaker hopes to be the leader in interior quality and design by the end of this decade.

“GM used to have vehicle interiors that were indistinguishable from one another,” Rand told the group of automotive suppliers in attendance. “That painful memory is still alive at GM, and we’re trying to make sure we never do it again.”

As a consequence, Rand says GM designers have more freedom now than ever before. “We no longer have to design simply for the lowest common denominator,” he says. “Now, consumers can find beautiful interiors at every segment and price-point in the market.” To keep designs fresh and innovative, Rand says GM is rotating its designers through assignments both inside and outside the vehicle. “The glamour jobs remain in exterior design,” he admits, “but by rotating our designers through both disciplines, we get them thinking about the whole vehicle package.”

The two biggest challenges to achieving GM’s interior design vision, he says, are cost and supplier shortfalls. “It’s true, GM is spending more money on interiors, but we’re still asked to find new efficiencies,” he says. “The challenge from the supply side,” he adds, “is that not all our suppliers can execute our design targets in terms of quality.”

Calling automotive interiors the “next great battleground where customers will be won and lost,” Ford’s director of interior strategy, product and design process, Marek Reichman, told the audience that interiors will emerge as the single most influential driver affecting vehicle sales.

However, the automakers’ weapon of choice, he says, will not be technology but design. “Future success in interiors will not depend on technology alone, because it is too easy to copy and too easy to improve,” he says. “Great design where technologies are packaged and applied in the right way will win the hearts of consumers.” Reichman further defines his prediction by adding that the winning designs will not be those with simply a lot of visual appeal. “The latest philosophical shift on interiors is less emphasis on styling and more on constructing interiors. Designers are crazy on precision. At Ford, we like to say, ‘millimeters matter.'” Reichman says part of Ford’s strategy is to tailor interiors to reflect value changes in society . for example, vehicles with quality interiors that are environmentally friendly. “For instance, bamboo

is replacing wood in many interior designs because its growth rate is three to four times faster than trees,” he says. “Consumers feel good about that.

During the closing question and answer session, Rand and Reichman shared a few insights into the future of interiors:

  • GM is emphasizing craftsmanship, using techniques like stitching and carving instead of mold and extruding. “We’re creating interiors that look like they are handmade, whether or not they really are,” Rand says.
  • Ford is focusing on methods of construction and is “obsessed with detail.”
  • Both designers see an increase in the perceived value of vinyl. “Some of the new vinyls are outstanding,” says Reichman. “I see vinyls coming back in a big way because most people cannot perceive the difference between vinyl and some leathers.”
  • Both GM and Ford are looking at European nonwovens as a replacement for tufted carpeting. “The amount of fuzz coming off an automotive carpet is still unacceptable,” says Reichman.
  • Rand says he doesn’t think the future of heads-up display is dead. “There’s not plenty of available real estate on the IP,” he says. “Heads-up display is an opportunity to take functions off the IP and put them in front of the driver.”
  • Regarding interior gloss levels, Rand says lower gloss levels are where GM wants to go, because lower gloss is equated with higher quality interiors. Reichman, however, says Ford will use whatever gloss level is most appropriate for the brand. “No one wants to see the same gloss level on every spot in the interior,” he says.
  • In seating, Rand says GM is looking for “thinner, more elaborate, more emotional and more visionary.”
  • Reichman sees more branching out in interior color. “More than 60 percent of a person’s impression of a new product is based on the color alone,” he says. “We’re interested in more natural, dusty browns; new purples muted with gray; a move toward warmer, yellow-based whites; and bright yellow-based greens as well as some greens that are so dark, they look saturated with color.”

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