• The evolution of comfort.

  • The evolution of comfort.

    • 18. March 2015
    • Autonomous Driving
    • Photos: Daimler
    • Text: Wolfgang Pauser

    To drive or to be driven? From the motor carriage to the F 015, the answer lies in the interior: a reflection of technical innovations, changes in society and our psychological needs.

    Children dream of one day being able to sit in the driver’s seat. Fathers dream of one day climbing the career ladder high enough to sit in the kids’ seat, sorry, in the rear compartment of the car and to be chauffeur-driven. In a traditional car, every seat has its own particular significance, culturally as well as socially. Our aspirations and fantasies are firmly established before we even climb in. Where you sit depends on who you are. Father and mother, child and grandmother: the seating arrangement is like an embodiment of the family dynamic.

    ' Not only a technical revolutionary, but also a social revolutionizer. '

    The symbolism attached to the seat positions stems from technically conditioned asymmetries. Two mirror-image axes separate the driver’s side from the passenger side, and the front seats from the rear seats. Where these axes intersect a complex structure is established. Cultural asymmetries are then projected so that every seat position ends up representing a specific social position. The F 015 research vehicle allows for a completely different interpersonal setup: when nobody’s driving, the seats can be turned around and there’s a multimedia ‘envelope’ to compete with the view out the front, then there is almost symmetry between the car’s occupants. It’s no place for demonstrations of hierarchy. In this respect the F 015 is not only a technical revolutionary, but also a social revolutionizer – even if only inside the car. From outside, its egalitarian interior cannot be seen.


    Luxury on the outside, comfort on the inside – the F 015 conforms to the distinction made between luxury and comfort in Graf Keyserling’s ‘Psychology of Comfort’ from 1905: “Luxury is like a mistress who demands sacrifice. Comfort is a wife who makes life easier.” Keyserling ascribed luxury to external relations – public life, outward appearance, competing for riches. Comfort, by contrast, is reflected in the qualities of a close internal relationship, “an established private setting that is always on my side. That’s why we humanize things, so that they support us, comfort us and are always there for us.”
    People want to distance themselves from their fellow men as well as to be united with them. This ambivalence permeates the entire history of the passenger compartment. As intriguing as the vision of the F 015 may seem to us – especially the concept of sitting in a sedan with your back toward the direction of travel – it is based on an age-old tradition. Back in the 1890s the driver would sometimes sit opposite the passengers, as in the Riemenwagen motor carriage of 1895. The design of the first motorized bus drew directly on the tradition of the enclosed horse-drawn carriages. However, it wasn’t until the touring sedan of Emil Jellinek (whose daughter Mercedes humanized the automobile) rolled on to the street in 1904 that the prototype of the later S-Class was born – an extremely luxurious vehicle that also exhibited some of the first features to be designed with the comfort of passengers in mind. Although there was no heating system yet, the seats were at least upholstered like sofas – which was a considerable improvement given the condition of the roads during the belle époque.

    Whether you prefer to sit by the steering wheel or in the back-right seat, it is no longer of any social significance.

    In the Simplex Touring the driver had to sit outside whatever the weather. He was given his orders through a curved ear trumpet. This arrangement continued a tradition from the era of horse-drawn carriages that had its roots in feudalism. In the royal courts of the 18th century, servants and footmen were not really regarded as people. Like a horse or a machine, the carriage driver was there purely to perform a function; empathy was out of the question. The vehicle of the future is in many ways returning full circle to the oldest concept of what makes a journey comfortable.


    The story of the touring sedan begins with the driver being positioned on the outside, and ends with him being removed altogether in the self-driving car. Between these two end points lies a century of defeudalization, the emergence of a bourgeoisie, industrialization and democratization of the vehicle manufacturing industry. The driver gradually makes his way inside the vehicle. He is no longer separated from his passengers by a wooden partition, but simply by a glass pane. In the luxurious sedans of the 1960s this partition became electrically operated, so the screen could be raised and lowered elegantly and discreetly at the press of a button. People no longer wanted to proudly demonstrate the social distance between lord and servant; instead they were a little embarrassed by it. By lowering the partition into the backrest, passengers could remove it from the view of passers-by. In this respect, the glass evolved from an element of ostentatious luxury to one of personal comfort.

    Grand Mercedes 770 (W07), 1938

    It can take a long time for social change to be expressed in new cultural norms. And even more time passes before these norms filter into vehicle body construction and design, as demonstrated by the seat covers of some variants of the Super Mercedes 600: the passengers were seated on velor, while the chauffeur sat on leather. Though by today’s standard this seems the wrong way round, this design is based on the traditional arrangement when only the passenger compartment was covered and the driver sat out in the rain. It wasn’t until the 1990s that velor disappeared from the product range and with it the very last trace of the lounge on wheels: the horse-drawn carriage. Nobody would ever have imagined that 20 years later, thanks to robotics, the lounge set-up would make a reappearance in car design.

    Creating social distance

    Even the robot’s ‘remote control’ has a prototype in history: in the Emperor’s car, the social distance to the driver made it particularly difficult to direct him, so Mercedes developed a mechanical signalling system. The Emperor could press a button to give orders, without having to demean himself by holding a personal conversation with his subordinate driver. As industrial manufacture transformed the car from a luxury good for the elite to a democratically distributed product for the masses, the norm of being driven gave way to that of driving your own car. Those who were still chauffeur-driven were considered prestigious thanks to the old aristocratic code of ostentatious idleness. Legroom in the back row went from being a comfort to a luxury. As a matter of honour, owners of Pullmans forewent the pleasure of driving their own car. After all, being in the driver’s seat is at the core of every bourgeois self-image and life plan. Autonomous activity behind the steering wheel is a slap in the face of every member of the nobility.

    Orders given at the push of a button...

    In the automotive democracy of the 1950s, the family man followed in the footsteps of the emperor and statesmen: as a customer he was king and as a driver he was the patriarch. The underprivileged status of the chauffeur morphed into the high esteem of the helmsman, representing the social elevation of the common man to democratic sovereign. This political context spurred on the new passion for driving, which had not been possible before the emergence of engines capable of sporty driving, easy-to-operate instruments and a protected and comfortable interior. The image of the vehicle interior was no longer shaped by social hierarchies, but family hierarchies. Slowly but surely women advanced in their battle to get in the driver’s seat.

    The concept of being driven survived in the niche market of top-end vehicles, but only expressed in the form of enhanced size, comfort and fittings, while leaving the structure of the solidly forward-facing family car untouched. From the 1980s onward, the back seat of luxury sedans underwent a cultural recoding: it was no longer seen as a monstrance of the idle rich. Far from it – for the new top managers the luxury sedan became a symbol of hard work, capability and success. The rear compartment became an office, the back seat now had to act as a permanent display of those work ethics, which – for the first time – legitimized these expensive cars in the eyes of the general public.

    ... thanks to the mechanical signal system


    Via the circuitous route of the office on wheels, the reversible front passenger seat made a return in 2007: in the F 700 concept car, the secretary could sit facing the boss with their back turned to the direction of travel. After hierarchies of class, family and capability, we now have the workplace hierarchy.

    The interior of the F 015 differs from its long line of ancestors in that it does not specify what it should be used for. It can be used at the passengers’ convenience as an office, a meeting room, a games room or a family lounge. The egalitarian interior offers no basis for any kind of social hierarchy. Advanced technologies have broken the link between seat position and social standing. Whether you prefer to sit by the steering wheel or in the back-right seat, it is no longer of any social significance. With its status leveling interior, the F 015 demonstrates that it is not only a forerunner in technology, but also a mobile platform for co-existence on an equal footing.

    Mercedes-Benz research vehicle F700, 2007