Thought Leadership

A solar-powered airplane and autonomous vehicle interiors

By Ed Bernardon

The interior of a car as we know it today, will one day — possibly soon — become a thing of the past.

The interior will be much more than fabric, leather, navigation and cooling or heating: it will become an experience based on the user’s needs. In an autonomous vehicle, it could be a passenger’s living room on wheels, proving a unique traveling experience, much like asking for first class on a plane. The stage for the importance of interiors is being set, much like a plane flying tens of thousands of feet in the air, the experience the interior provides is about to take a leading role in our interaction with cars.

As humans interact with vehicles through the interior and move from being drivers to passengers, the interior will become even more vital to automotive engineering. For instance, augmented reality could be used to display information about what’s outside a window, whether it’s a menu of a restaurant you’re about to pass or if a nearby shop has an item you want in stock. These interiors could be reconfigured easily, based on your needs to eat a meal, play games or watch a movie.

I spoke with Paige Kassalen, the future of mobility market analyst at Covestro, a leading producer of advanced polymers and high-performance plastics globally. We spoke about being on the cusp of dramatic changes in the automotive industry, and a whole new paradigm with car interiors, driven by autonomous technology. We discussed how vehicle interiors and materials could change the way we live and interact, and the contribution Covestro is making to this dynamic sphere.

Here, she set the stage with how her diverse career background prepares her for engineering the future care travel experience – including her work with the historic Solar Impulse 2 aircraft.

Edward Bernardon: I have to ask you about the work that you did on the Solar Impulse 2, with the ground crew there. How did you go from that to where you are now, which is doing the mobility market analysis for Covestro?

Paige Kassalen: I started my career as an electrical engineer representing Covestro on the ground crew for Solar Impulse 2. That was the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. Covestro supplied materials to help construct the plane, including polyurethane insulation foam for the cockpit, polycarbonate for the windshield and coatings, adhesives and specialties for different parts throughout the plane.

I have a degree in electrical engineering, and I realized how many opportunities there are when you work in materials. Already in my career at Covestro, I’ve experienced how materials can be used in solar-powered airplanes and autonomous vehicles. It’s interesting because a lot of people ask me how I could go back to a normal desk job after an experience like Solar Impulse, where I had the chance to travel the world with the ground crew. I tell them all the time that I don’t have a regular job because materials are always evolving. There are new needs for all of these emerging markets as the future of mobility continues to take shape.

Edward Bernardon: With the interiors on the Solar Impulse, was there anything unique in there, or is there anything you learned about interiors from that project related to your work that you’re doing in the automotive industry?

Paige Kassalen: The most significant thing that I learned from Solar Impulse was that materials make a difference. One of the challenges for Solar Impulse was that the plane had to be extremely light. It weighs around 5,100 pounds, which is about the same weight as an SUV. The plane would reach an altitude of 28,000 feet, where the temperatures would be -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The cockpit wasn’t pressurized, nor was it heated or cooled. It was a relatively harsh environment, but the engineers had to create a solution for keeping that cockpit a livable condition. Instead of adding some electrical systems or an HVAC system, they just changed the material used for the cockpit walls. They made the walls from Covestro’s polyurethane insulation materials, and this seemingly simple change created an inside cockpit temperature of -2 degrees—a significant improvement over the -40 degrees outside.

Solving challenges with material solutions translates to interiors for the future of mobility as well. Right now, people are thinking about the software and the hardware and how to interpret the world around these autonomous vehicles, so the vehicles can drive themselves. At Covestro, we’re thinking about how materials can enable the interior experiences future users will want

Edward Bernardon: It sounds like the Solar Impulse 2 gave you an excellent opportunity to figure out how materials can help address some of the challenges in that unique environment. You’ve certainly raised the point here that interiors in the future are going to create a unique environment in cars.

What do you see, if you take a step back and you look at the future for cars? Where do you think the most significant challenges are as we move from the cars that we have today, to the next generation of vehicles, these futuristic cars?

Paige Kassalen: I think the biggest challenge is how quickly all these changes are happening. If we look back at history, the internal combustion engine was invented in the 19th century, and not much in the individual vehicle ownership model has changed since then. Now, we see all of these things, like ride-sharing. That’s a huge disruptor in the industry. Autonomous vehicles are definitely very different from the model T that we had back in the day.

Even electric vehicles are very different. Removing the internal combustion engine gives you more room to have space in the interior of the vehicle, and to have the future experience users would want.

I think the greatest challenge is how to bring together industries throughout the value chain to collaborate and enable those future vehicles that the users will want? 

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This concludes the first part of our series on autonomous vehicle interiors, a discussion with Paige Kassalen, of Covestro. In part two, we’ll continue discussing interiors and their unlimited options.

About the author
Edward Bernardon is vice president of strategic automotive initiatives for the Specialized Engineering Software business segment of Siemens PLM Software, a business unit of the Siemens Industry Automation Division. Bernardon joined the company when Siemens acquired Vistagy, Inc. in December, 2011. During his 17 year tenure with Vistagy, Bernardon assumed the roles of vice president of sales, and later business development for all specialized engineering software products. Prior to Vistagy, Bernardon directed the Automation and Design Technology Group at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, formerly the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed new manufacturing processes, automated equipment and complementary design software tools. Bernardon received an engineering degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University, and later received an M.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MBA from Butler University. He also holds numerous patents in the area of automated manufacturing systems, robotics and laser technologies.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at