IT IS EVERY AUTO MAKER'S NIGHTMARE: An entire generation of consumers suddenly no longer aspires to own a new car or truck. And some think it may come true.

Many observers in mature automotive markets such as Japan, Western Europe and the U.S. believe young people's passion for driving and owning vehicles is waning.

Instead, today's teenagers and young adults, known as Generation Y, seem to be more fascinated with electronic gadgets than cars. And online social networks allow them to interact with friends without driving anywhere or having to find a parking space.

How can designers and engineers incorporate these new interests and features into future vehicles so Generation Y, and even younger Generation Z (those born in the early 1990s and through the 2000s), still will aspire to own new cars and trucks 10 and 20 years from now?

To find some answers on the vehicle interior side of the equation, Ward's partnered with interior suppliers IAC and Lear to sponsor a design competition with students from the Transportation Design Department of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

Under the supervision of CCS instructor Clyde Foles, Generation Y students were challenged to create a vehicle interior for an active, young professional in the year 2020.

The target customer is a 25-year-old male or female college graduate making $50,000 a year and a big believer in staying connected all the time with the latest social media technologies.

The 7-week class project encouraged students to use their imaginations and integrate “green ideas” wherever they could, but they also were required to consider real-world constraints regarding vehicle size, cost and fuel efficiency.

The dimensions of their interior designs had to be compatible with vehicles in Ward's Upper Small Car segment, which includes the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra.

The brief given to the students included the following elements:

  • New technologies and materials that are innovative, but available for production within 10 years.
  • The latest features and interactive controls, while actively discouraging distracted driving.
  • Good environment for work and fun.
  • Sensible, comfortable seating for at least four people.
  • Components that come together as a stylish, compelling design.

Given a clean slate, the students envision thought-provoking designs that borrow ideas from smartphones, video games, nature and elsewhere to create unique concepts of how vehicle interiors could, or should, look in the future.

While each student's design is unique, a number of common threads can be found. Many took their inspiration from shapes and structures found in nature, or incorporated recycled or renewable natural materials including soy foam, recycled plastics, bamboo and hemp.

Ambient lighting is used frequently as a design element that interacts with driver moods or vehicle functions.

The best designs were put on display at the Ward's booth at the SAE World Congress in Detroit in mid-April.

Five finalists in the competition were announced at an April 13 press conference at SAE. In alphabetical order, the finalists are Andrew Bianchi, M. (Ross) Gray, Haneif Katebi, Bozenka Shepherd and Leonard Takada.

Bianchi's interior uses a camera focused on the driver's face that changes the color of the ambient lighting according to their mood. Many vehicle functions are controlled by simple hand or finger movements on a centrally mounted touch screen. Shifter controls also are operated via a touch screen.

The central component of Gray's interior is an ultra-sophisticated, multi-layered windscreen that provides real-time navigation, position and safety data to the driver and passenger. Rather than being a distraction, the information makes the driver hyper-aware of surroundings by highlighting vehicles and pedestrians.

Shepherd's design features small LEDs embedded in the seats in a stitch-like pattern. They glow red when the heat is on and blue when the air conditioning is engaged to create different moods. Synthetic “vegan leather” is used for seating surfaces.

A centrally located iPad-like screen controls vehicle and communication functions and disappears into the center stack when not in use to avoid distraction.

Katebi patterned his driver's cockpit after the carnivorous pitcher plant, which partially engulfs its food. The design enables the driver to focus on driving while limiting distraction.

Cameras in various locations are synched with a voice-activation system. For instance, drivers or passengers can activate the climate-control system by waving a hand over an air vent and stating a temperature.

Takada modeled his interior after a stripped-down rally car. Parts of the driveshaft tunnel are clear, displaying moving parts.

To promote safe, green driving, the instrument panel features a game-like display point system inspired by the X-box 360 achievement system.

The finalists were selected by three top auto industry designers: Robert Gelardi, senior/lead designer-Mustang program, Ford; Dan Vivian, director-engineering design, Hyundai-Kia Motors N.A.; and Peter Davis, chief stylist at Tata Technologies.

The best work of all the students will again be on display at Ward's Auto Interiors Conference May 17 at The Henry hotel — formerly known as the Ritz Carlton — in Dearborn, MI.

The five finalists will be honored at the May conference and Ward's will announce the grand-prize winner.

Two special awards also will be announced. The IAC EcoBlend award will be given to the student whose design or concept best utilizes lightweight renewable/recyclable materials.

The Lear Design Innovation Award will be bestowed upon the student whose work includes a specific design or technological innovation the judges deem particularly creative and forward-thinking.

Each of the winners will earn scholarship money to help further their educations.

Interior Winners Deliver Style, Function, Value

For video clips of student presentations, go to: