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Location, Location, Location

The ability to maximize available space and still keep occupants comfortable while conforming to a global hodgepodge of safety and efficiency regulations is an art and a science.


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“Location, location, location,” say realtors seeking the ultimate competitive advantage. Interior and powertrain designers should take heed of this notion when incorporating innovative features into new vehicles. The ability to maximize available space and still keep occupants comfortable while conforming to a global hodgepodge of safety and efficiency regulations is an art and a science. 

Take the example of the front cockpit. Over the past 30 years, designers have been required to package more things into this space, ranging from airbags and myriad switches to navigation screens and increased storage room for items such as 64-oz. sized cups and cell phones. It makes one long for 1965, when finding room for a purse and a hat was the most substantial challenge.

The march of technology has been both a boon and a hindrance to freeing interior space. Consider the center console. In January, Chrysler introduced the 200 sedan with a rotary gear selector. It offers several benefits beyond electronically selecting the gears. Its small package and lack of mechanical linkage to the transmission opens space below and above. Gone are taller gear selectors that obstruct the HVAC controls and take up space in the center console. Many vehicles have added electronic parking brakes, thereby eliminating the need for a mechanical lever embedded in the center console, or a pedal in the footwell. Not only does this result in a cleaner look, but it helps accommodate the many devices we carry and need to charge, as well as provide increased storage.

The drive to eliminate physical components is not only on the surface, but behind it, as well. CD changers are giving way to Bluetooth or USB connections. This allows space behind the instrument panel for HVAC ducting, airbags, and panels revealing deep storage. Slimmer and more efficient displays and touch-sensitive switches also allow greater design freedom. Looking forward, the elimination of the mechanical link between the steering wheel input and the wheels would allow more efficient packaging solutions in the interior and engine bay. 

The eventual shift to higher voltage technologies (above 12/14 volts) enables more efficient packaging and mass reduction. A few possibilities include: 

•    Electrically driven rear HVAC systems: Would reduce the need for ducting through the passenger compartment 
•    Electrically driven rear wheels: Would lower mass and increase packaging space as well as boost control and stability by eliminating the driveshaft, transfer case and rear differential. In addition to a weight save, the intrusive center tunnel would be eliminated
•    Electric braking: By eliminating the hydraulic link, a number of packaging opportunities would be opened, such as at the wheel ends and in the engine bay. Eliminating the brake booster would lower mass and enable more efficient packaging near the firewall. 

Eliminating the spare tire and jack has already become more commonplace in vehicles today. While no major decision such as this is without tradeoffs—mostly from the cost and consumer side—it is clear the easy 20- to 30-lb. weight reduction helps an OEM improve fuel efficiency. Offering more storage in the rear, or opening this space for hybrid propulsion possibilities, pays dividends now and in the future. In fact, the use of hybrid propulsion systems may be the ultimate purveyor of new packaging solutions. The shift toward hybrid propulsion will heat up next decade, driving new opportunities to house batteries, controllers, and motors. 

The battle to open more usable space for vehicle occupants while balancing cost, mass efficiency, safety, and individual brand and model needs (i.e. specific devices and connectivity solutions) will propel vehicle design for years to come. 

�  Michael Robinet has been a managing director of IHS Automotive Consulting since 2011. Prior to that, he was the director of Global Production Forecasts for IHS Automotive. His areas of expertise include global vehicle production and capacity forecasting, future product program intelligence, platform consolidation and globalization trends, trade flow/sourcing strategies, and OEM footprint/logistics trends.