What's on the inside makes us love cars

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The 2014 Silverado 1500 full-size pickup truck could be somebody's new workplace, and the designers at Chevrolet know that.

They've included a mix of power outlets and USB ports to support laptops, tablets and other electrical devices needed on the modern job site. The truck's infotainment system can link up to 10 devices and responds to voice commands to make calls, find destinations and play music.

And, the company promises, the controls are easy to use with heavy work gloves on.

Vehicles make important first impressions with flashy paint and distinctive shapes, but it's what is inside that can clinch the sale. The interiors of the cars and trucks that will be displayed at the Pittsburgh International Auto Show this week, and the ideas now being tested for future models, have been influenced by everything from a smartphone-addicted public to a more mobile workforce to an industry driven to hit new government fuel-efficiency standards.

Climb inside a few vehicles and the reasoning behind some features may seem obvious. Others, not so much.

For example, the 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited can be had with a technology package that includes a place to charge certain smartphones automatically by laying the devices down on a panel. The 2014 Kia Cadenza boasts a navigation system displayed on an 8-inch touch screen.

Both of those gee-whiz features offers a practical advantage -- along with something to show off to the neighbors. But not all of the reasons for the changes inside vehicles coming off the assembly lines are so apparent.

2013 Pittsburgh International Auto Show

  • Location:

    David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

  • Dates:

    Friday, Feb. 15, to Monday, Feb. 18.

  • Hours:

    Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

  • Sunday and Monday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

  • Admission:

    General admission -- $10 (except Monday, when general admission is half-price).

  • Seniors 60 or older/Military with I.D. -- $8.

  • Children 12 and younger -- Free.

  • his year's Pittsburgh International Auto Show will feature cars, trucks and SUVs from more than 35 manufacturers and exhibitors, including some new models not available at dealerships yet. In addition, there will be a classic car display, a NASCAR simulator, a Vintage Grand Prix exhibit and military combat vehicles.

    Organizers have plans to keep the kids entertained, too, with everything from visits from the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates team mascots to face painting and a balloon artist.

Take the redesign of seats and components that seem to flow seamlessly together. In the past where several parts might have been bolted together, that might not be the case for the interior structure anymore, said Andrew Smart, an engineer who serves as a director with SAE International, an industry association whose members are engineers and technical experts in the aerospace, automotive and commercial-vehicle industries.

"Now they're trying to make it from one part," said Mr. Smart, who divides his time between in SAE offices in Warrendale and Troy, Mich.

The goal, he said, is to reduce the weight of everything inside the car to help improve fuel efficiency. The industry recently agreed to meet new U.S. standards calling for a vehicle fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

"The interior plays an important part in the overall weight of the vehicle," Mr. Smart said.

That might be a factor in the trend toward installing thinner seat cushions than in the past, but there's another driving force in that decision, too. At the recent North American International Auto Show, an economist from Ford noted that smaller vehicles are growing as a percentage of the total U.S. market. "But," noted Mr. Smart, "people don't want to have smaller interiors."

That forced automakers to look at issues like the thickness of seat cushions and upholstery materials. Mr. Smart said new foams, some of which have the added advantage of being made using sustainable materials, have helped in this area.

So, now, consumers can try out a lightweight, fuel-efficient car that has legroom in the back. Enough get-up-and-go under the hood and that should do it, right?

Um, like, LOL. A vehicle is not exactly a critical piece of freedom to a group of young people who can reach most of the planet from their bedrooms, or their coffee shops.

"For the younger generation, it's not an office," Mr. Smart said. "It's really a place to be connected to the rest of the world."

Screens that can be adjusted by touch -- just like a tablet or smartphone -- are becoming more common. And they are growing in size. "It's like big-screen TV," Mr. Smart said. "Screens are getting bigger."

Automakers now talk regularly about their travel/entertainment packages. In the Hyundai HCD-14 Genesis concept car unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January, the demonstration video showed a digital poker game playing on a dashboard screen in front of the front passenger's seat.

More vehicles have secure spots to tuck iPads, while drivers who have music libraries through Pandora and on various devices may be able to access their full collections while in the car. The more connected car could eventually be an extension of the driver's smartphone and tablet.

Automakers are also dabbling in the apps business, which could make it possible for consumers to add or upgrade features through the life of the vehicle -- not to mention giving the car companies a new revenue stream.

The vision of a fleet of more connected cars on the nation's roads has, in turn, raised other issues.

Concerns about driver distraction have fueled investments in systems already starting to appear on some models that can tell when a car is wandering from its lane or is coming too close to other vehicles and obstacles.

Voice recognition technology, hands-free text messaging and new dashboard configurations that allow drivers to check on-screen maps without turning their heads are all meant to improve safety. Eventually, adding more intelligence to pieces of the nation's transportation grid -- maybe by having things such as traffic lights and vehicles connect wirelessly -- could help avoid crashes and smooth traffic flow.

Of course, all that connectivity, whether involving music or how fast a car is going, requires the free flow of digital information.

And that means that someone might be able to tap into it who isn't supposed to do so.

In the past, Mr. Smart noted automakers didn't think much about cybersecurity issues as it applied to individual vehicles. Now they are all looking at what happens as more information is funneled through the software programs used in cars and trucks.

For those people still driving 10-year-old cars with CD players -- once the latest technology -- and no USB ports, some of these changes may seem a little extreme.

Mr. Smart said the automakers are actually taking a lot more direction from regular drivers than ever before -- doing the kind of focus groups and shopper surveys that were once more common for goods in the grocery store. "They've listened to the customer base," he said.


Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018. First Published February 13, 2013 5:00 AM


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