Changing Interiors Of Cars, Auto Industry Looks Outside For Inspiration

People outside the car industry are having a bigger influence on its future

Right at the outset of his presentation, Tom KraMer confessed. He doesn't know a lick about the auto industry. He designs medical devices and surgical tools for a living.

This information makes the middle-aged Minnesotan an unusual choice to be a member of a three-person panel discussing the future of the industry at a conference for automotive insiders.

Within a few minutes, the outsider made his bona fides, identifying two ways manufacturers could improve the interiors of their cars. As KraMer – yes, he spells his last name with an upper-case 'M' – detailed his ideas, he gave the executives assembled some off-the-cuff ideas to ponder.

Inside their cars, consumers have a wealth of choices these days. They can opt for one connective system versus another. They can stream music any number of ways. They can upgrade to leather. They can choose beige, brown or black.

In fact, those interior choices were the subject of the day Wednesday at the Ward's Auto Interior Conference in Dearborn, Mich., where among other things, they named the Top 10 Car Interiors of 2013.

KraMer wants engineers to think beyond infotainment and upholstery. By only focusing on those specifics, manufacturers are missing chances to differentiate their cars and make more fundamental changes.

Two ideas he imagined during his short walk around the interiors conference: One, he wonders if font sizes on touch screens can be made larger for people who have vision problems. Even better, he wonders if the font size can adjust to a driver's real-time eyesight.

Two, he wonders why rear passengers are subjected to getting "beat to death" by the wind when windows are opened. He wonders if the window could be designed to do more than merely open in an up-down fashion.

For a guy who had spent less than an hour brainstorming, they were intriguing suggestions.

More than ever, the ideas – both small and large – for revolutionizing cars lie outside the auto industry. Those inside the industry are becoming aware of that. A fresh perspective is needed, argues Mike Crane, a vice president of body and security systems at Continental Automotive.

Young Americans are disinterested in driving. They're logging fewer miles of driving. They're obtaining driver's licenses in less-frequent numbers. That's a problem, at least to those in the auto industry. "And the answer to that doesn't exclusively lie in new colors, fascia or fuel economy," Crane said.

The big, bold change could come in the form of the self-driving car, which has been pioneered more by Silicon Valley than Detroit. It forces automakers to rethink the basic fundamentals of a car, the layout of the interior, even the need for a steering wheel.

Two months ago, the smash-hit of the New York Auto Show was not a car itself, but a small vacuum cleaner installed in the rear of a Honda Odyssey. The idea was conceived by the 6-year-old daughter of a Honda engineer.

Robert Walker, chief of design for Jeep, said the days of sticking a picture of a competitor's product on a white board and trying to out-think it are long gone.

Last week, he traveled to Yunnan Province, China, where he met with a Tibetan Thangka master. The vivid colors of the flowers and paintings he saw in that meeting, he says, could inspire him to bring the same color schemes to a Chrysler product someday.

It's important, KraMer says, to look outside the industry for inspiration and ideas. That goes for designing medical devices or cars.

"I'm looking at the toy industry and Hollywood," he said. "Those are experience-oriented industries, always ahead of everyone else in what they're doing and achieving, and creating experiences."

It's a reminder that when it comes to ever-evolving technology and ever-evolving cars, there is one constant amid the sea of changes: The people riding in the vehicle.

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached at or followed @PeterCBigelow.

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