Will cockpits of tomorrow require one-stop suppliers?

David Sedgwick is a staff correspondent for Automotive News.David Sedgwick is a staff correspondent for Automotive News.
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Adient and Faurecia are locked in a race to produce complete cockpits for self-driving vehicles, and there is some irony in that.

To reduce complexity, automakers will be tempted to let suppliers figure out how to integrate the necessary data displays, rotating seats, sliding consoles and related gadgetry.

During the Detroit auto show last month, the two rivals -- which happen to be two of the world's biggest seat makers -- promoted their ability to handle that job.

Alert readers will recall that Adient's corporate predecessor, Johnson Controls Inc., marketed complete cockpits 20 years ago.

In the 1990s, JCI launched a costly campaign to produce door panels, consoles, seats, headliners and instrument panels. But customers weren't interested, the company concluded, so JCI dumped everything except seats.

But the pendulum is swinging back.

During the auto show, Adient invited journalists to view its mock cockpit for self-driving vehicles in a showroom one flight up from Cobo Center's bustling main floor.

The mock-up featured a rotating driver's seat with a control panel on the armrest. It looked suitable for Starfleet Command. But the real key to Adient's sales pitch was next door.

Just past the cappuccino stand was a doorway to an adjoining showroom where Yanfeng Automotive Interiors -- the world's largest producer of automotive interior components -- displayed an assortment of door panels, consoles, instrument panels and other cockpit gadgetry.

This was no accident. Yanfeng and Adient are sibling companies. Both were spun off from Johnson Controls, and both are well stocked with former JCI executives.

Adient also has a 30 percent stake in Yanfeng, so it's no surprise that they're making joint pitches to customers to produce complete cockpits.

"The auto industry goes in cycles," said Byron Foster, Adient's executive vice president. "In recent years, automakers would buy individual components. Now they're looking at complete interiors."

But there's a catch. When Johnson Controls dismantled its interiors operation, it sold its electronics unit to Gentex and Visteon. Adient may come to regret that. A key feature of self-driving vehicles will be the information displays in the center console, instrument cluster and windshield.

In June, Faurecia announced plans to acquire Parrot Automotive, a company that specializes in infotainment, voice recognition and connectivity. And more Faurecia acquisitions are on the way.

In an interview last month, Faurecia CEO Patrick Koller practically chortled about his ambition to produce complete cockpits.

"We have to invest in infotainment and connectivity," he said. "We have to invest in displays, and we have to invest in artificial intelligence."

Koller said he could spend as much as 2 billion euros ($2.15 billion) on acquisitions. In a separate interview, Foster said he's also willing to make some acquisitions, but he did not identify his targets.

Faurecia has thrown down the gauntlet. Will Adient accept the challenge?

You may email David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com.

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