MOTORING / Are you sitting comfortably?: You won't be for long in the cars of the future if you're over the limit. Jeremy Hart on interiors that can soak up smells, cut out noise, cool seats - and eject drunks

INTERIORS rarely sell cars. Who'd be seen in an ugly duckling of a motor even if it did look like Buckingham Palace inside? Yet in the past few years, designers have begun to focus not only on the image of the interiors but also their function - and, most significantly, their effect on our health.

Simplicity will be the most obvious quality of the cars of the future, particularly where the controls are concerned. This is not because drivers are becoming lazier; nor does it herald the beginning of a robotic age. The reason is to do with demographics. 'By the year 2000, in Europe especially, the majority of drivers will be over 55,' says Ken Greenley, course leader in vehicle design at the Royal College of Art in London, where some of the best potential car designers in the world train. 'Cars of the future will have to be aimed far more at people who are not in the full flush of youth,' he adds. 'The whole look of cars will have to adapt. Buttons and information from the dashboard will have to be larger and easier to see.'

The car interior as we know it - the all-too-

familiar unimaginative mixture of plastics and vinyls, checks and stripes - is not about to disappear. But in 10 or 20 years you will be driving in a comfortable cocoon in which advanced technology will steer the car, cool your seat, counteract road noise, even monitor your alertness and health.

Of the large manufacturers who are already creating the 21st-century car, Mitsubishi has been one of the most radical. Its HSR-III concept car has no pedals. Instead, the brake and the accelerator are in the form of motorbike-style twist grips on the steering wheel - part of a fly-by-wire technology known as the Autonomous Driving System. 'This means the driver is not required to exert as much physical force as in conventional foot operation of these controls,' says Mitsubishi.

The HSR-III could also save lives electronically. A Driver Monitoring System measures the driver's heart rate through sensors in the steering wheel. It can also sense irregularities in steering and the blinking of the driver's eyes - an indication of a loss of alertness, or even drunkenness. If the driver does not react to the warnings flashed from the display panel, the monitoring system will cut in, take control of the car and pull it over to the side of the road with the aid of in-built cameras.

One idea proposed for Honda's concept car is even less forgiving to drunks. A driver who tried to clamber behind the wheel after a few too many would be breathalysed by an automatic device that sniffed the alcohol on his or her breath. A positive result would set off a James Bond-style ejection system, propelling the offender head-first out of the car.

After alcohol, one of the main causes of accidents is noise - because it induces fatigue. Even in the most luxurious cars, driving above a certain speed creates a booming sensation - a combination of tyre and engine noise. The antidote, already designed separately by Lotus and VW, is electronic noise control. Using microphones mounted in the car, the technology senses the booming and plays a combative sound through the loudspeakers. The two sounds cancel each other out and make the car's interior almost silent.

Toyota is more concerned with smells than noise. The company's Japanese engineers have invented a car-seat material that gets rid of them. Made of a natural ceramic and crystals, it soaks up anything from the smell of cigarettes to pet odours.

Vauxhall has tackled in-car hygiene another way. Its design team in Germany has created a seat which is air-conditioned - and another that breathes. 'A stable temperature has a remarkable effect on overall comfort levels,' says Gerhard Stonus, head of interior development at General Motors. Vauxhall's air-conditioned seat is only likely to appear on luxury models, but the breathing seat - made of cloth able to keep a driver's back and bottom cool - should be widely available.

Seats are often criticised by orthopaedic surgeons, who claim lumbar support is often insufficient, leading to fatigue and, in extreme conditions, back trouble. Professionals who spend long hours at the wheel are most at risk.

'Pressure on the discs is at its greatest when you are sitting,' warns Dr Bernard Watkin, an orthopaedic specialist who has studied seating design. 'Combined with the up-and-down movement of the car, this puts the back in a far from optimum position. The longer you spend at the wheel, the worse the pressure on the back becomes - so a nice soft seat might not be so desirable after 100 miles.'

Even though most car companies have introduced lumbar support and better quality foams to their seat construction, Dr Watkin thinks more could be done. 'They just need to make seats the right shape. I've never been of the opinion that they need to spend a lot of money to achieve that.' Dr Watkin worked with the mechanical-digger manufacturer JCB to make a seat supportive for a driver spending day after day at the wheel.

In the punishing sport of rallying, Finnish driver Ari Vatanen drives his 150mph Subaru Legacy from a specially designed orthopaedic seat designed to protect his damaged back. Vatanen almost died in a high-speed accident in 1985. One of the dozens of injuries he sustained was a compression fracture to two of his vertebrae, causing them to fuse. In January this year he had another accident, causing two vertebrae lower down to fuse as well.

Determined to help him continue driving for the Banbury-based Prodrive team, Vatanen's team doctor, David Williams, commissioned a special seat costing pounds 2,000. 'It is made from orthopaedic foam which cushions his back,' Dr Williams explains. 'It has a high hysteresis, which means that the faster it is compressed, the harder the foam gets. Anyone who gets stiff on a long journey can only begin to imagine how Ari must feel. This sort of seat would be great in a road car.'

Rally drivers are not the only group for whom badly-designed seats are an occupational hazard. During the Second World War, Allied troops were invalided out with Jeep Driver's Bottom - otherwise known as a pilonidal sinus, a painful abscess that forms in the cleft between the upper buttocks with the inflammation of a distended hair follicle. There were 77,000 cases of the condition in the US Army alone, most caused by the bouncing motion of the Jeep and the insanitary conditions of war. Driving, especially off-road, is still one of the most common causes of the 7,000 annual cases in Britain today.

'It can be aggravated by the friction of the buttocks which, in a motion like rolling a cigarette, cause the hairs to be drifted into the skin,' explains Timothy Allen-Mersh, a surgeon at Westminster Hospital and an acknowledged expert on the subject.

Land-Rover, as might be expected, tries to limit the amount of bouncing its drivers have to endure. 'We try and hold people into the seat,' says John Tomkinson, in the company's trim department, 'mainly by giving them some retention through the shape of the seat.'

Hard on the tail of the boom in safety features in new cars, manufacturers are at last seeing the value of making driving better for you. Next time you get stuck behind a slow- moving over-55-year-old, do not hoot. Instead, think of the creature comforts he or she may be bringing drivers of the future.-