With cars getting generally better and better all the time, the things that automakers seek to improve become more and more subtle. Like how everything feels. Up until fairly recently, the only concern about how interior materials interacted with your hands was basically just making sure they didn't lacerate you too badly.
Now, natural materials and plastics are being chosen and developed so they actually feel pleasant and luxurious to the touch. I met with members of Nissan's team that is working on these sorts of things and they showed me how they're trying to make materials that feel like the fingers touching them.
When I (and pretty much every other reviewer) evaluates the inside of a car, you'll note a clear preference for "soft touch" plastics. They just feel better, and provide a greater illusion of quality. I say "illusion" because these are still plastics in most cars, with leather and other natural materials too expensive for most mass-market use.
In developing plastics that feel good to the touch, Nissan's engineers have four main criteria they focus on: soft/hard, warm/cool, rough/smooth, dry/moist.
It seems the ideal "high-feeling" materials, according to Nissan's studies, are soft, warm, smooth, and, um, moist. Ew. Even with the translators, there was still a pretty good language barrier, so when I was asking the engineer some questions, I was initially puzzled at the response.
Here's roughly the conversation we had as the engineer was showing results from a pressure/softness-testing apparatus (a little mechanized finger that pushes into the sample materials).
ENGINEER: "This curve regular plastics, and this our developed high-touch plastics. This curve is softness of human finger pad. This is what we're doing.
ME: You're making plastics that feel good to a human finger? Does the curve show something about what a finger feels?
ENGINEER: No, curve is the finger.
ME: The curve shows the softness the finger feels, or a finger is?
ENGINEER: Curve is softness of finger. Of finger pad.
ME: So… you're making materials that feel like a human finger?
ENGINEER: Yes, feel like finger.
So, yes, Nissan is making plastics that replicate the feel of the skin on your fingers. That may sound a bit ghoulish, but, really, it's not. The goal has always been to create materials that cause the people who interact with the car to feel the most pleasant, pleasurable feelings. And, if you think about it, when it comes to tactile sensations, what's more pleasant and comforting than holding someone's hand?
We're sort of pre-programmed to enjoy the feel of other fingers against our own. Hence, that's the target of these engineers.
It's not just the level of softness— as in resistance to pressure— of a human finger pad— it's also the texture. Their research has found that surface ridges or other patterns are perceived to be most preferable when their scale most closely approximates the scale of the ridges of a human fingerprint.
So, at least as far as tactile characteristics, Nissan actually is seeking to replicate human finger skin, and then cover almost every surface inside of a car in it. And, really, it makes complete, data-supported sense, and will make cars that are likely very pleasant to drive and be in.
But thinking about it is still sorta creepy.
(Full Disclosure: I was in Yokohama, Japan last week to attend Nissan's Advanced Technology Seminar, which is where the company can show off some interesting stuff they're working on long before it actually makes it into our cars. I saw lots of interesting things, and I'll be telling you all about them this week. Oh, and in full disclosure, they flew me out there, fed me fish on a boat, and put me in a hotel right near a bunch of Pachinko parlors. — JT)