Self-driving cars to radically change our daily lives

Disclaimer - This interview was originally published online in Trend magazine, July 9, 2017. It is reprinted below in English. 

"We are going to turn boring car seats into intelligent assistants"

We will have to get used to the fact that cars will soon turn into multi-purpose rooms, says Adient’s vice-president for design and innovation. Being responsible for the design and innovation of car seating may seem somewhat unexciting at first sight. Working as Vice-President in this two spheres at Adient, the world’s largest car seat producer, Richard Chung frankly admits that very little has changed in the last 60 years as far as car seats go. However, the arrival of autonomous vehicles and shared mobility has been changing our perception of the car interior dramatically. The chance to break free from having to hold the steering wheel and the dropping number of people who will actually have to own a car in the future are two factors that provide designers and developers with both new opportunities and challenges.

How do you think car seating will change in the future?
In about three or four years’ time, the automotive industry will transform, entering a new era of its history. 130 years ago, we changed from horse-drawn carriages to cars. Today, cars as we know them are becoming autonomous vehicles. The relationship between the car and its driver will change as well. Previously, it was all about the romance and freedom of driving because people were suddenly able to cover very long distances thanks to cars. However, our lifestyle changes every now and then. I lived in Shanghai, which is home to almost 27 million citizens. In such a huge city, the pace of life is much faster. You have 24 hours a day, but you could do with 28. Autonomous vehicles will allow people to achieve extra time. We’re essentially shifting from the pleasure of driving to gaining more time for ourselves. Autonomous driving technology will make this shift possible. At the same time, cars are becoming less and less important, especially when it comes to ownership. Our society is becoming less focused on products and more focused on experiences, which is an important step that will be made possible by autonomous driving – and car seating is an important element in this transformation. 

What will these changes mean for Adient?
As I previously referred to a change in the relationship between man and the car, what we see is actually a change in our society as such. In the past, it was focused on the car itself; today, however, it is more about mobility. In addition to cars, mobility also includes trains, planes, buses or bicycles. The main goal is to get from point A to point B as simply and easily as possible. For example, sometimes I start a conference call at home, I carry on talking in the lift, in my car on the way to the airport, and often until I board the plane. You see, what I do is that, in the course of my meetings and phone calls, I actually go through different places and resources without having to interrupt my phone call. Previously, we were tied down by mobility – due to the limits of technology, we literally had to stop and solve issues on the spot. Our current technology allows us to move from one location to another smoothly using different means of transport with the benefit of being able to do everything we need.

There is a discussion about shared mobility...
Yes. another change is the transition from a society based on ownership to one based on sharing. I do not actually own my phone: I pay a monthly fee instead and after a year or two I choose a different device. This change is represented by companies such as Uber, Lyft, or AirBnb. They are becoming more and more significant to the quality of our lives. For less money, you can actually experience more. It's no longer about having the most expensive car or watch, but more about as many experiences with your friends and family as possible with the resources  you have. Therefore, as a company, we must primarily learn more about the way people perceive products today. What is more, while shaping their product experience, we need to bear the factor of sharing in mind.

Will the car become an office or a living room?
We imagine the space in cars of the future to be a multi-purpose room. It can serve as a living room, a dining room or an office. In such a case, however, you won’t want your seat to be in the same position at all times. You will want to move it around, choose from a number of positions, stretch your legs, and straighten your back. You will probably also want to use various additional services, such as massaging, cooling, or heating – to put it simply, you will want to lay back and relax. What is more, since the seat is truly a component that is in the closest contact with your body, it will become a smart device. It will connect to your body using biometrics; it will monitor your temperature, pulse, and pressure distribution; it will be able to detect that you are tired, rested, or stressed, subsequently engaging in communication with you. "We have noticed that you are tired. Would you like a massage?" So, from what used to be just an ordinary chair, the car seat will become a product that will improve your life – and that is exactly the direction in which we try to look.

Still, how do you know that consumers are actually interested in these features?
As part of our research and development department, we have a great team of specialists who focus on studying consumer behaviour. It goes back a long way, which is something that car producers appreciate, often asking us to explain some trends on the market.
If you ask the customer today what new function they would like in the future, this is hard to answer. If you ask specifically whether they want this or that particular function, they always know the answer. Therefore, it takes a visionary approach to understand the current lifestyle of your customers and how it will change in the future. Based on this knowledge, we can predict what kinds of services or products our customers will need in the future. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes not. But we try to come up with innovations and often make suggestions to car manufacturers. We show them what current trends we have detected, what our knowledge is, and what types of products they will need in the future as a result.

Indeed, but autonomous cars should primarily do away with traffic jams, making traffic smoother and allowing people to spend less time in their cars.
The evolution of technology and its use comes with new value for customers, changing the way they spend their time and use the product itself. Today, we met at a hotel to do this interview. In the future, though, I'll send a car to pick you up first, then me, and we will have a meeting in the car on the way to the airport. This way, we will take advantage of the transfer time to do something useful. It will also change the way we work. Let me give you an example. Google has employees in San Francisco, but the company’s headquarters are in Mountain View, which is about an hour's drive. Many young people do not want to move from San Francisco, which is why Google sends coaches to pick them up every morning, and the coaches practically become their office premises. 

And they may start working 
The employees clock in as if they came to work and start working immediately. Of course, there’s Wi-Fi connection, food, and desks, so work begins already on the coach. When they come to their offices, they have already completed an hour’s worth of work. This is exactly the type of smooth mobility we have in mind – or fluency, as we call it. Consumers can do whatever they will, wherever they please, without anything or anyone stopping them. In designing our seats, this is exactly the kind of smooth mobility we want to offer our future customers.

Where do you draw inspirations from when designing and innovating your products? Is the automotive industry the only source or do you look at other industries as well?
We can draw a lot of inspiration by watching other people – the way they live and the things they do. For example, Steve Jobs never used any consumer surveys – instead, he was interested in the ways people lived, the issues they faced, and solutions that could be applied in the circumstances. I used to be a designer – and I naturally study people’s behaviour to see what solutions I can offer them as a designer. I always try to study people, so that I can see what they have difficulties with and what needs improving. That is essentially my approach. In our department, there are as many 120 people with mindsets similar to mine. We have been studying consumers and communicating with them on a continual basis. We have a lot of ideas – some of which are absolutely crazy, which is why we always have to say to one another which solutions are good, which ones won’t work, and which ones are impossible. If we were doing this interview in a car, we’d have to be able to swivel the seats and we could probably do with a small table for drinks. Our goal is to make sure it is our vehicles that will offer such features. 

Have you developed any solutions that did not actually go down well with your consumers?
Ten years ago, we came up with a seat that could mechanically adjust itself to the position of the driver as he moved. We never started to manufacture it, but we showed it to our carmaker customers. Back then, there was no such thing as an autonomous vehicle, so there was concern that consumers would reject such a feature. Even the carmakers told us it was not such a good solution from their point of view. If we used this technology in autonomous vehicles today, I think it would meet with greater success. A good innovation comes to the right place at the right time.

Have the consumers refused any already developted technology? 
When we speak about the features that actually went into production and became unpopular, we haven’t had such a thing yet as our products go through a lot of pre-production tests. In the past, however, seats used to be relatively simple products, so they did not bring any major innovations. This is about to change with the arrival of autonomous vehicles, though.

What is the role of the designer in designing car seats? How much freedom do they enjoy?
There are many things that designers can have an impact on. Since it includes a great number of elements, the seat is the second most expensive component in the car, right after the engine itself.

There are metal parts, positioning mechanisms, foam, covers, plastics, electronics, airbags, and so on – and they all have their limitations. The designer must not only understand how these components work together, but also take into account what the client is after, which typically includes lighter, more comfortable and more luxurious seats, as well as many other requirements. In addition, the designer must also bear in mind the overall style of the car as the seats must fit in, both in terms of the car’s exterior and interior design. Needless to say, all of these requirements must be well balanced in one way or another.

It takes a lot of thinking and creativity. If we could design a seat solely based on the way we would like them to be, it would be all too easy. In reality, we have to face so many limitations that we always have to harmonise them painstakingly. We also cooperate very closely with our engineers. You can have all sorts of ideas, but then you find that it is not actually possible to manufacture them. For this reason, our designers and engineers work side by side to come up with optimal solutions, which we subsequently present to carmakers. Although they have the final say, they quite often ask us for advice. 

Automotive industry design also includes individual market localization as an important element. To what extent is it necessary to adapt the design and functionality of your seats to different regions?
Regional requirements are part of our business and we have to comply with them. At the Shanghai Motor Show, we recently introduced the Integrated Luxury Seat (ILS) designed for the Chinese market, specifically for MPVs, which are used in the country for business purposes. In Europe, however, they are used as family cars. The reason behind this is China’s historical development, the Volkswagen Santana being the first widely used model, originally defined as a family car. Things are different today, though, as people look for SUVs in particular. It all may change in the future, but today we simply need to take MPVs as business vehicles. The second row of seats therefore provides room for guests and business talks. Significant individuals and their business partners take the rear seats to talk about business. As a consequence, the second row of seats is very important in China – actually more important than the driver and passenger seats in the front. That is exactly why we developed the ILS in the first place. In designing them, our Shanghai designers and engineers were inspired by airplane business-class seats, transferring selected elements to the ILS. The seat has a number of features, such as massaging, heating, cooling, or an air filter for microparticles. It also allows the user to control various electronic devices with one finger thanks to a touch screen, which can recognise the owner thanks to a fingerprint sensor. There is even a small table attached.

Is there any room for such a product in Europe as well?
Maybe, although probably not to a large extent. This product is primarily intended for the Chinese market. The ILS has not been launched on the market yet, but it isn’t a mere concept either.

Richard S. Chung is Vice President of Innovation and Design at Adient, the world’s largest automotive seating producer and, as of last year, a spin-off of the US concern Johnson Controls. R. Chung is in charge of five technology centres, including the headquarters in Burscheid, Germany. Prior to taking his current position in October last year, he worked at the Yanfeng Automotive Interiors joint venture as Vice President, his main responsibility being global strategy and industrial design implementation. From 2000, he worked at Johnson Controls Automotive, where he was in charge of industrial design and the development of advanced concepts. He studied Transportation Design at the University in Pasadena. In the past, R. Chung also worked at Ford Motor, where he led a North American small car studio.