Automotive lighting: dangerous curves ahead?

The automotive industry has historically found itself in a constant state of liminality, perpetually playing catch up with new technologies, consumer trends and shifts in global economic and political developments.

With the advent of the age of the electric car, the promise of autonomous driving and the rise of the shared economy all slowly beginning to filter through into the considerations of car designers, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the experience and expertise of the lighting designer is urgently needed to provide answers to a number of key questions regarding car interior design.

As we step tentatively – and slowly – into what is unquestionably a new age of the automobile, the function of the car itself is being called into question. One thing, however, is certain: new functionalities will lead to an unprecedented shift in car interior design.

Current attempts to integrate lighting design within car interiors

Car manufacturers have already started to realise that light will play a major role in the future of interior design. Initial moves to provide an element of ‘individuality’ within car interiors have involved light. A recent development called ‘ambient dynamic lighting’, which is currently being peddled by two of the main players in current interior design, Osram and Dräxlmaier, could hold the key to providing an element of individuality for motorists and passengers in a future dominated by car sharing platforms. 

Dräxlmaier’s ambient dynamic lighting solution offers 28 Billion colour combinations

The function, which enables drivers and passengers to choose their own lighting ambience within the interior, uses RGB LED technology to create a full spectrum of deliciously saturated coloured wash lighting and accentuations.

In theory, ambient dynamic lighting sounds like a good starting point. However, a number of real world examples are proving that the expertise of the lighting designer has been, up until now, circumnavigated.

Factory illumination of a 2019 Mercedes Benz

Mercedes Benz – the once respectable choice for doctors, lawyers and professionals – is going to great lengths to ruin its brand image with the introduction of so-called ambient dynamic lighting in all of its cars, which has succeeded in turning swathes of their models into at times tacky illumination objects. Aftermarket solutions are also available to further totally unnecessary accentuations.

Aftermarket brighter LED accentuation for Mercedes Benz

Commenting upon the recent ambient dynamic lighting trend, a spokesperson from Dräxlmaier mused: “If, up to now, ambient lighting was mainly a design element designed to make travelling for vehicle users more comfortable and, not least, to underline the premium character of a vehicle brand, light is of course also a component which is suitable for redesigning a vehicle interior again and again depending on the user’s requirements.”

Ambient Dynamic Lighting in BMW’s Mini – one of the most common cars to be found in the car sharing platform ‘share now’

Although the introduction of ambient dynamic lighting does undoubtedly lead to a certain degree of individualisation on the part of the driver and passengers, the gimmicky nature of ambient dynamic lighting proves that it is an extremely short-sighted attempt to take advantage of the possibilities associated with LED technology. Although LEDs offer, in the words of Dräxlmaier, ‘million fold colour possibilities’, caution should nevertheless be exercised in its execution. The conditions are ripe for the immediate intervention of the lighting designer.

Autonomous driving

Perhaps the biggest change in automotive culture is still to take place. With autonomous driving, the traditional role of the driver will be potentially relegated to that of caretaker driver, or even passenger. As a result, it seems fairly plausible to assume that the traditional car interior – with all instruments of control focused around the driver – will look completely different in the future thanks to the cockpit’s rewritten function.

Leading the way: Tesla’s Autopilot

As developments continue toward autonomous driving, Osram has already begun to offer solutions for what it is calling the ‘passenger cell’ – a futuristic term for car interior – to be integrated by car manufacturers. Interestingly, light is already being seen as having potential to serve a mixture of functions within the interior.

Speculative future design – light as a bridge between ambient and functional lighting

“Light will become an integral part of the passenger cell, taking on functional and design-specific tasks,” says Stephan Pawlik, Marketing Manager Automotive Interior at Osram. “In the future, the interior of vehicles will be more than simply a cabin for the driver and passengers. It will be an extension of our living space in which we will be able to work and relax.”

Canoo lounge concept 

Given the minimised input of the driver in the autonomous car, it seems obvious that the recreational element within the interior will be increasingly brought to the fore. Although the car as an extension of living space was first propagated with the release of the Smart Forfour in 2004 with its ‘lounge concept’ interior, the imminent change in functionality brought about by the autonomous driving car will be much more than a marketing gimmick. A recent concept car from Canoo is perhaps one of the best reimagined uses of the car interior to date.

A lack of engine bay translates to a completely rethought interior design

The ‘loft inspired’ vehicle, which was designed by Richard Kim – the man responsible for leading the design of BMW’s i3 electric car, is an attempt to think about what future users will actually need. For one, since the electric car doesn’t require an engine bay, Canoo has taken the liberty of reimagining the entire front of the vehicle, which offers passengers an unimpeded view of the road ahead.

The concept won Canoo’s creators a platinum Muse award in 2019

“We implemented the Bauhaus philosophy and started with the reduction to the absolute minimal need,”writes Canoo on their website. “We applied that approach to the seamless connectivity with the personal devices customers care most about – their phones.”

Canoo’s approach for the user interface provides users with an experience comparable to the connected home. The user brings their own device to the table, with all non-driving features such as navigation, music or heating controlled via phone or tablet to be consistent with the user’s daily connected life.

Although lighting isn’t specifically mentioned in the concept’s preamble, as is evident from the rendering, the role of lighting is nevertheless hugely present within the concept. Again, it’s here where the lighting designer could be of great utility in further shaping the usability of the Canoo.

Peugeot’s e-Legend: pointing the way for interior media facades?

A surprise ‘curveball’, if you will, has been thrown by none other than French car manufacturer Peugeot. Why is this surprising, you may ask? Ever since the launch of the 206 back in the late 90’s, Peugeot has been perfecting the art of making bland cars – a fact which doesn’t sit easy for car enthusiasts who remember the glory days of Peugeot’s iconic models such as the 205 and the 504. And yet, seemingly out of nowhere, Peugeot has launched the e-Legend concept – a car which might possibly represent a long awaited return to form.

Peugeot has taken the late 70’s Pininfarina designed 504 coupe as the basis upon which to design perhaps the most radical electric car yet, at least from an interior design perspective. The disappearing steering column, for one, purposefully points to the driverless future of the cabin. Why do you need a steering wheel if you don’t actually need to physically drive the car?

Instead, the interior is cocooned by a wrap around media facade of sorts, replacing all previous interior elements such as instrument binnacle, screens, centre console and just about anything else we’ve come to expect from a car interior. The seemless 49in curved screen, which encompasses both doors and the front of the interior, functions as an information display during normal mode and a screen for presenting various media in autonomous mode. It also has a built-in video game: a version of Pong, which was developed around the same time as the 504 coupé.

Just as designers are tasked with creating luminous content on media facades, so too could designers play a part in luminous content within screen laden interiors of the future, as highlighted by Peugeot’s e-Legend. It’d certainly be exciting to see the kind of solutions which lighting designers could come up with given the large blank canvases of the screens here pictured.


The wheels of change turn slowly. Going back to the very beginnings of automobile design in the late 19th Century, it took decades before car designers finally shook off the car’s ‘horeseless carriage’ credentials to account for the different function brought about by the internal combustion engine.

Although radical functional changes to car design are still many years away, we currently find ourselves in a crucially important transitional state in which the potential of lighting is beginning to be seen and exploited. If the lighting designer doesn’t intervene, we’re at risk of subjecting our future selves to an ambient dynamic lighting dystopia, which is probably what the big car manufacturers think we’ll want.

Ultimately, the knowledge and understanding of light’s ability to shape human experience in the built environment is totally relevant and transferable for car interior design. And we’d all be all the better off for it. W

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