When the driver becomes the passenger: Why lighting is key for the “Car of the Future”

Driverless cars are coming to your driveway soon, but here’s the funny thing: No one quite knows what the driverless car of the future will look like.

Today, car companies are dreaming big and the car of the future might not even resemble what we think of today as a car. The shift to automated driving alone will transform the interior of the car into a space catered to work, play, or simply relax.

In a series of posts, we’re going to look at various components of the car of the future, a vehicle that may sit in your driveway sooner than you think. Let’s kick it off with interior lighting, an underappreciated component of car design that can upgrade the entire driving experience.

An interior that reacts to your mood

The car of the future isn’t about driving, but relaxing.

It’s well established that the color and tone of artificial light affects our mood, so the car of the future will employ functional and accent lighting that gives passengers permission to just enjoy the ride. Smart systems that imitate natural light will adjust their color and warmth automatically, depending on the time of day, to raise passengers’ spirits or ease them into relaxation, much like some airlines do.car-interior-with-green-lighting-driverless-car

Today, only some car manufacturers use accent lighting in the RGB color spectrum; in the future, most cars will rely on integrated task, functional, and accent lighting via LEDs, fiber optics, and smart control panels, which allow passengers to customize interior lighting with over a million colors or combinations from which to choose. The light guides, able to be tuned to any shade in the color spectrum, will give new depth and visual appeal to the car of the future’s door trims, center console, glove compartment, overhead lights, and other interior spaces. Specialty fiber optic lighting in and around a moon roof could even create the illusion of the night sky on the interior of the car.

These fiber optic component – not tubes or bulbs – will provide flexible, low-energy light to create interior designs attuned to individual tastes.

Refocusing design

About 15 years ago, car companies rethought car interiors. At that point, buyers were not only interested in a car’s exterior, but they wanted a comfortable and stylish interior too.

Now designers and engineers are re-conceiving the entire notion of a “car interior.” The car of the future, from luxury brands to budget vehicles, may more closely resemble your living room or office and lighting will play a considerable role. The car of the future will be personalized to you.

Remember, the car of the future is driverless and autonomous, so passengers will have more time and opportunity to do whatever they wish in a car. Imagine a truly mobile office, work shop, or relaxation space and then think of the design possibilities and challenges: Does the car of the future need five seats and headrests? Could a car have a couch and a bed, a desk, a conference table, or a workbench? Will attached overhead lighting be movable? Can lighting create different zones in a car or change when a new song comes on without disturbing others? All of these possibilities and more are being considered as the driver is freed from having to control the vehicle.

Even today, car designers are borrowing ideas from home and aircraft interiors like focused recessed lighting and accent lighting. New designs and lighting technologies will create new standards for the car of the future, and new materials will refresh a space that’s now filled with plastic, leather, and cloth. Revised storage areas, new seat configurations, and touch screens built into more surfaces could elevate the riding experience so that future cars will be known more for their interior designs than their exterior colors and lines.

car-door-with-orange-lighting

The new possibilities in driverless cars

Today, the headlines show a future shaped by driverless cars, and it’s a good bet that dream will become a reality. But hidden in the headlines is how passengers will interact with these vehicles, and what they’ll do when they’re on the road.

In many ways, designing a driverless car becomes an entire bumper-to-bumper refresh. Imagine sitting in the car of the future: There’s no wheel, no pedals, no gear shift. So what is there? Essentially anything you want, shaped in large part by lighting that will help set the mood for this personal and functional space. In other words, the design possibilities are boundless.

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Hello, I’m Carl VanDommelen, the Business Manager for the automotive group in SCHOTT’s Lighting and Imaging division. I’ve been with SCHOTT for more than eight years, and in that time I’ve worked in the machine vision/microscopy and industrial groups. I have a mechanical engineering degree with an emphasis on applied optics from GMI Engineering & Management Institute. As a native of Detroit, I’m an automotive enthusiast, and in my free time, I restore old homes and pinball machines, ride motorcycles, and front a band called BEAKER in Milwaukee, my current hometown.

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