Detroit — There have been plenty of demonstrations of futuristic electric vehicles featuring autonomous driving options that turn today's car into a living room or a mobile office.
But at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Nissan Motor Co. and its Infiniti brand instead showcased EVs that look more like sedans seen on the road now, which are a vision for what the Japanese automaker could put on the road in just a few years.
"This is a progression," said Giovanny Arroba, program design director at Nissan, during an interview at the auto show's press preview Jan. 14-17. "This is a step forward. We're looking at this for 2022 and beyond."
That step forward also looks at opportunities to tweak materials and processes, which could mean 3D printing, urethane-based synthetic leather, subtle LED lighting and a higher profile for clear plastic screens.
The expected growth of electric vehicles is prompting much of the support to change the inside of the vehicle. Because EVs typically use separate small electric motors to power the wheels — either one for each wheel or one for the front wheels and one for the rear wheels — there is no longer a need for a center shaft tunnel. That means the interior can now have a completely flat floor, which would sit above a flat battery pack.
"I think of it as a magic carpet," said Alfonso Albaisa, senior vice president for global design at Nissan.
Without the tunnel, there is no longer a hump in the middle of the floor. That means that a center rear seat becomes a place to stretch out and relax, rather than a place to fight for leg room.
"Electrification provides a fantastic opportunity for designers and for engineers to redefine the proportions of our cars," said Karim Habib, executive design director for Infiniti. "As you can see, by having a flat floor and no B pillar, we're able to provide a wide open and natural way to enter or exit the vehicle."
For the Infiniti QX Inspiration SUV concept, a marble look for a center table transitions into a clear look for the controls near the front seats. LED lighting near the window changes color for daytime driving vs. twilight or nighttime to more closely mimic the changes of daylight in nature, Design Manager Takuga Karasawa.
"This area is high-tech, but it isn't cold," he said.
The Infiniti concept won the award for interior design in the Eyes On Design awards, presented Jan 15.
Both the Nissan IMs sedan and Infiniti concept cars demonstrated the potential for 3D printing, developing instrument panel designs that could not be produced using standard molding techniques.
"Obviously, 3D printing is something we're very excited about," Arroba said. "3D isn't ready for mass production yet, but we see a fuure in that, and we wanted something that you could only 3D print."
The Nissan concept also turned to what Arroba termed "vegan leather" for seating and other interior skin applications.
"We wanted to get a premium feeling, and that's usually always leather," he said. "We captured that, I think with a synthetic version."
Arroba didn't specify what materials would go into Nissan's alternative, but Japanese materials company Toray Industries Inc. has been marketing its branded Ultrasuede material, made with polyester and polyurethane, to designers and the auto industry. "We're going into the realm of vegan leather and synthetics, but celebrating it and making it cool," Arroba said.
Plastics News staff reporter Audrey LaForest contributed to this report.