Nissan design chief on CarPlay, autonomy and the future of interior design

Shiro Nakamura, the man behind the current GT-R, 370Z, Juke, Cube and most other current Nissans, sits down with CNET trackside at the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans to talk about how design is changing.

Shiro Nakamura
Nissan's Shiro Nakamura at Le Mans. Tim Stevens/CNET

LE MANS, France -- At the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance sports car race this year, Nissan is marking the debut of the GT-R LM. It's a full-bore prototype with an unusual front-engine, front-wheel-drive configuration. It is a rolling exhibition of Nissan's willingness to pursue the unusual.

In attendance at the race is Nissan Chief Creative Officer Shiro Nakamura, a huge motorsport fan and also a fan of unusual design. Nakamura-san has been with Nissan for decades and has held this role for nearly 10 years. This, he says, has been a period of radical evolution in the automotive design, but even bigger changes are afoot.

One of the biggest drivers of this change? The smartphone and, more specifically, technologies like Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto. "This is a hot issue for Nissan," Nakamura told CNET. "It's really changing the interior. For exterior design, not much has changed. If you look at the last 50 years, exterior design is very small changes. Maybe headlamps are now LED, used to be a bulb. In the interior, so much has changed. Lots of new functions."

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Nissan's GT-R LM on the track Patyrick Gosling / Jamey Price

Today's infotainment systems, dominating the dashboard space between the seats, are full of features and technologies that didn't exist until recently. GPS navigation, satellite radio, smartphone connectivity -- none of these things bothered designers in the '80s and even early '90s. Now, they all need room, and for designers like Nakamura, the question is how to make room for those features without distracting the driver.

Nakamura gestures to a smartphone sitting on the table next to him: "These are one way to simplify, but we are not sure how much, because these are distracting. Touch screen is optimal for this kind of design, but a touch screen is not always the best solution for the car. With the touch screen you have to touch. You have to look at it. In a car you cannot look at it like this. You have to drive!"

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Nissan's Concept 2020 Vision Gran Turismo Nissan

Nakamura iterates through a few possible solutions, things like heads-up displays that take over the entire windscreen or in-air gestures that let you control what you want without having to look down. However it's autonomy, he believes, that will drive the ultimate shift in interior design. "We are introducing partial autonomous cars very soon, which you can drive without touching the steering. Very soon, very soon. Just around the corner. Interior design will very drastically change. It's the start of a new type of interior."

Another major factor? Voice. More specifically, voice with intelligence. "Imagine you have a chauffeur inside the car. Say 'Go to the restaurant,' or 'To the petrol station.' Just talk and it will go. That is not very far away."

The future, it seems, is coming quite soon -- making Nakamura's job that much more difficult. "Designing cars is becoming more complex. It used to be a nice looking car is our goal. It's much more than that today!"

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