A conversation with Adient Vice President of Global Innovation & Design Richard Chung

The vehicles of the future have long been on the mind of Richard Chung, Vice President of Global Innovation & Design for Adient, a global leader in automotive seating. This year, Adient unveiled its AI17 automated driving seating system — shown in photo above — which highlights adaptive, modular innovations that are focused on consumers and their interactions instead of face-forward driving.

In this Q&A, originally published as part of a feature for EY titled "A Conversation with Richard S. Chung of Adient." Jeff Henning, EY Central Automotive Advisory Leader, spoke with Chung and got an inside look into the next generation of autonomous vehicle seating systems.

Q: You have experienced many technology, consumer and design trends over your career in the automotive industry. In your view, what is behind the recent acceleration of interest in autonomous vehicles?

Since their invention, automobiles have personified the romance of traveling. More than a means of getting from point A to point B, they represent our dreams, as children and adults, of accomplishment, freedom and luxury. Second only to buying a home, cars are one of the most important object purchases many people make.

Until now. We are evolving from an object ownership-related society to an experience-related society, and our relationship with the car is changing dramatically. In the next 20 years, the percentage of people living in large cities and urban areas will increase significantly.

Given these demographic and personal value shifts, the autonomous vehicle will likely become the preferred mode of automotive transportation. Autonomous vehicle technology is very well-developed, and many automakers are committing to a commercially available autonomous vehicle as early as 2020.

Q: What’s your view on the adoption of autonomous vehicles, and is Adient taking the lead in disrupting or innovating in this space?

Autonomous is being embraced with open arms by many because it means people will be able to maximize their time versus being stuck in traffic for hours, which is unproductive, tiring and stressful. Consumers are already focusing less on “stuff” and more on experience.

Autonomous cars represent a significant opportunity to safely bring a very wide range of experiences and activities into the vehicle to maximize the use of riding time. Adient is committed to delivering our innovation faster.

We are already exercising a completely new mentality. Over the last three years, Adient has conducted internal studies regarding the autonomous vehicle. We revealed our initial thoughts with the ID15 concept car interior in 2015 under our former company name, Johnson Controls Automotive Experience. With this concept, we made a statement as the first OEM supplier to be thinking about the autonomous vehicle interior.

We live in an instant culture. Everything has to happen now. Consumers are not patient enough to enjoy the time it takes to get things done. People want more sleep, to catch up on emails, watch their favorite show, shop or make the most of their work day. Autonomous cars will have a completely different impact as drivers become “riders” and fill their “ride” time with activities that are meaningful to them.

Whatever you can do in the house or workplace will eventually need to be replicated in the vehicle environment. People don’t want interruption. At Adient, our innovators and designers incorporate these and other far-reaching experiential concepts into our vision of the future.

Q: What are the most significant areas where the seating systems and interior content will impacted by the advent of semi- and fully autonomous driving?

Safety and comfort will remain staple features, even as new features come into play — features that allow riders to work, read, relax, eat, have engaging conversations or video conferences, or even exercise.

Seat technologies have to provide more than just comfort, which is why Adient is already thinking about smart seats that interact with you on your posture and ergonomics or enable e-commerce right from the rider’s chair. The opportunities that sensor technology and data analysis provide are very significant and under serious evaluation by our designers. All of these features and technologies require a collaborative ecosystem to design and develop into an integrated seating system.

We are seriously investigating who our potential partners could be to take us to the next level. This kind of thinking is all about allowing the consumer to do more to enhance rider experience. In providing all of these experiences, the autonomous vehicle’s seating system and interior will have to differ from that of a traditional car.

Where the interior was once about a driver’s operating convenience and luxury, in an autonomous vehicle, functionality that enables lifestyle will be key. Historically, we have been focused on comfort, safety and features like folding and reclining, but those all pertain to driving. Now it’s about the consumer’s mobility experience rather than the driving experience.

Q: What role is Adient playing in designing the seating and interiors space in the high-utilization sharing economy?

Autonomous vehicles will further enable the shift in OEM business models from ownership to mobility, as well as continue to expand mobility-as-a-service models. The significant expansion in ride sharing is confirming our sense that time is a consumers’ most important asset.

According to a study Adient recently conducted, many commuters simply don’t want to spend time to look for a parking space, and thus mobility as a service is an immediate solution. The vehicle as a service/sharing economy is about convenience — freeing up your time — and the consumer is not obligated and tied down to owning a car.

As we move toward this sharing economy, consumers will begin to think about mobility much the way they think about a hotel today. Some riders will want a luxury experience like a stay at a five-star hotel, and others will be satisfied with a bargain but still desire a clean and comfortable experience.

In this new space, the user experience must be consistently maintained over much greater usage patterns than traditional vehicles. For all experiences, the vehicles will need to be kept clean and well-maintained.

In this context, fabrics and seating surfaces that are easy to maintain, non-staining and antimicrobial will be increasingly popular. Autonomous vehicles that are part of this sharing economy will also sustain significantly more wear and tear. This means we will need to study the benefits of modular seating where seat components can be easily upgraded or replaced.

Q: We know Adient wants to “pick up the pace” of innovation. Why is this significant?

The pace of change is continually accelerating, and we need to accelerate with it. We recognize that becoming more nimble and agile will be necessary to support new types of customers and the mobility trends we anticipate. And we’re ready.

This year, with our AI17 automated driving seating system, which highlights adaptive, modular innovations that are consumer- and interaction-focused, we demonstrate that Adient is well-positioned for the next generation of autonomous vehicles and this major change to the automotive industry.

Based in Burscheid, Germany, Richard Chung is a passionate and consummate designer, innovator and futurist. Richard has been in the automotive industry for 30 years. He has been with Adient (formerly Johnson Controls) for 17 of those years. Initial roles had Richard focusing on industrial design, sales and marketing in the Asian market. More recently, Richard has shifted his attention to interiors and re-establishing the innovation organization within Adient.