Autonomous cars bring new meaning to travelling light

Car interiors are evolving to accommodate autonomous driving. Amidst the excitement, one area oft overlooked is lighting. Xavier Boucherat talks to Hella about interior illumination in the car of the future

When lights and lighting regulations were first rolled out in the world’s mature automotive markets, the priority lay in making a vehicle visible to pedestrians at night. Interior lighting was barely a consideration. The picture now however is very different, and moving forward, lights in the cabin are set to take on more safety, convenience and design functionality.

That’s the opinion of Ana Bizal, Head of Pre-Development at Hella Interior Lighting. Along with basic functionalities such as reading lights and trunk lamps, Hella’s work now reaches into ambient lighting and integrated electronics. The diverse work load requires the company to pay attention to a number of megatrends, and a broad range of customers, including upmarket manufacturers, enables it to stay on the cutting edge of technology.

A car of one’s own

One of the company’s latest developments to reach the road is dynamic lighting, which was rolled out in the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro. On the road, drivers can set lighting features in the cabin to one of 24 colours, and assigned a colour to each driving mode, such as a bold colour for sport mode, and a more relaxing shade for cruise mode. But there’s another feature – when in park mode, the driver can select ‘show mode’ lighting, in which colour changes appear to flow outwards from the instrument panel and through the vehicle, as opposed to all the lights changing at once.

In the future, says Bizal, innovation will come thick and fast. Light could run through interior LEDs like a ‘spark’, for example. Such features will enable OEMs to offer customers increased customisation options. “If someone spends a lot of money on a car, they’re going to want to feel that luxury,” says Bizal. “This is what personalisation allows. Perhaps you’ll be driving full speed down the highway, and you want a colour to reflect that, or coming back from work, and you want something subdued, such as amber.”

Along with personalisation, the other design trend occupying Hella is integration of lights into parts within the interior, as opposed to simply fitting on top. As Bizal explains, the interior of a modern car has two distinct designs – one for day, and one for night. “Initially, cabin lighting was simply about illumination, but now it is far more of a sculpturing feature, to compliment design features,” she says, “so the experience at night is completely different. At night, the light appears as if from nowhere.” Lighting strips help to orientate the driver within the cockpit, making the way they move inside more intuitive, whether looking for a space to put a drink, or somewhere to place a smartphone.

This trend is important moving forward as it requires Hella to consider the effect of the material the light is built into, which may be chrome, matted, or glossy. With OEMs using an increasingly mixed set of materials to build cars, this will become more complex with time. Over the long-term, however, Hella will have even bigger changes to consider – namely, how the rise of autonomous driving may change requirements completely.

A new lived environment

Self-driving cars have the potential to completely change the nature of vehicle interiors. With the driver’s attention no longer required on the road, the car has the potential to become a living environment outside of the home, or the office.

Concepts from suppliers such as Yanfeng show that this isn’t merely wishful thinking on the part of futurists. The seats inside the Chinese interiors supplier’s XiM17 concept, unveiled at the 2017 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), can be rearranged at the touch of a button. In ‘office mode’, for example, the steering wheel folds away, the back seats retract, the driver’s seat moves to the rear of the car, and the passenger seat revolves 180 degrees, giving both occupants an unobstructed view of each other.

This has obvious implications for a lighting supplier such as Hella. “If the driver is no longer driving, they have time to touch, to see and to enjoy other things,” says Bizal, “and we will see lighting take steps forward to facilitate this. We need to be able to deliver different experiences – an office, a playroom, a lounge. This is looking many years ahead, but when imagining scenarios like this, light is completely essential.”

Initially, interior lighting was simply about illuminating the cabin. But now it is far more of a sculpturing feature, to compliment design features. The experience at night is completely different

Swivelling seats, for example, will present practical challenges. Fixed seating fixtures are relatively simple to illuminate when necessary, as the light can be fixed into place, but when the seat arrangement changes, so does the area requiring illumination. “A swivelling seat might be used to deliver an office environment,” says Bizal, “and this really needs an intense, feeding light, able to cover a very large field. Unpredictable movement of the occupants means lights will need to move much more, and provide more functions.”

Herbert Wambsganss, Director of Engineering at Hella Interior Lighting, agrees. “It will have to adapt to the passengers’ situation,” he says. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that the proliferation of autonomous technology will represent an evolution for the industry, and not a revolution. “Autonomous driving will not be 100% autonomous. Rather, there will be autonomous portions, perhaps after a period of manual driving at the start of a journey. Periods of manual driving will require the non-distractive lighting used today, which limits options, but there will be new autonomous scenarios with different requirements. The task for lighting suppliers will be to find ways of adapting to these scenarios.”

Safety first

The opportunities for improved comfort and convenience may be many, but above all else, lighting remains a safety function. Hella has clear ideas on what lies ahead here, particularly with the introduction of additional sensors to the car. The company has developed considerable expertise in electronics integration, and through linking ambient lighting with sensor data, interior lighting could be made intelligent.

For example, says Bizal, if a pedestrian were to step in front of a vehicle, the instrument panel might turn red to alert the driver. It could even ‘move’ across an instrument panel to track that pedestrian. Similarly, door-lighting could could be connected to sensors monitoring blind spots, and be programmed to turn red when a driver, cyclist or pedestrian was detected, warning the driver not to attempt a lane change or to open the door. There is even potential to connect Cloud data to interior lighting, to provide information on the way ahead, or navigation tips.

However, says Bizal, Hella will need to move carefully. Whilst the hope is that new developments will improve safety, it will have to ensure that new features don’t distract or confuse a driver. Features such as the Camaro’s Show Mode are only available in park mode for a reason, and whilst a flashing-red dashboard might make sense to some, it’s entirely possible it could confuse and exacerbate an emergency situation for others. Regulation could provide guidance in this area, as more autonomous technology appears on the roads.

Blinking lights in the cabin will surely be subject to rules, because these lights are close to the driver, and there’s a fine line between assisting and distracting

“There are a huge number of issues moving forward,” explains Bizal. “Blinking lights in the cabin will surely be subject to rules, because these lights are close to the driver, and there’s a fine line between assisting and distracting.”

However, she concludes, whilst these are problems that will doubtless need to be solved in the long term, autonomous driving is “something of a question mark for all sides involved right now, and these are issues we aren’t facing yet.” For now, she notes, “these wild scenarios with hard blinking lights while driving just aren’t there.” A feature like dynamic lighting is mostly related to welcome and goodbye scenarios, and it’s down to automotive suppliers such as Hella to work out how to implement them safely into the car of the future.

This article appeared in the Q1 2017 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.