The primary purpose of Valeo’s Smart Cocoon concept is to save power in electric vehicles. In extreme temperatures, when batteries are at their least efficient, it takes a lot of precious amps to warm or cool the cabin, and so Valeo sought to find a more efficient way to keep occupants comfortable. That raised the obvious question: Why heat (or cool) the whole cabin when you can target individuals?
Our demo took place in a Mercedes SUV with its climate-control panel conspicuously blanked off. Hidden away is a panoply of equipment: low-light cameras, infrared cameras, temperature sensors, facial- and body-recognition units, and even low-power radar. The system complies a huge amount of data: It can figure out if a seat is occupied; recognize the occupant’s face; and detect body temperature, heart and respiratory rates, and activity levels. By comparing the temperature of your face with that of other parts of your body, the system even figures out out how heavily you are dressed (if at all). It even takes a guess at your gender and age. (All of the information is used in real time, nothing is stored in the car or the cloud.)
Using all this collected data, the system can figure out factors that affect your comfort—not just temperature, but also your mood, stress level, and fatigue. Temperature adjustment is done on a seat-by-seat basis using Valeo-developed energy-efficient devices, including heating pads concealed in the armrests and center stack (they can work behind leather and wood trim panels as well) and cooling vents that save energy by using intelligent air distribution and diffusion rather than brute force. The coolers piggyback on the battery-cooling system rather than a traditional A/C compressor. All use less power than a traditional single-point HVAC system.
Does Smart Cocoon work? Does it ever. I sat in the car, watched the demo (which included the low-light camera’s recognition of our faces and movements), and in a few seconds, I was…well, comfortable. I intentionally wore my extra-heavy L.L. Bean sweatshirt, which looks insubstantial but is surprisingly toasty, and it failed to fool the car. I removed my secret-weapon sweatshirt, and the system figured that out and adjusted the temperature accordingly.
Smart Cocoon still needs some development. The heating pads make the armrests uncomfortably warm, and while I was grateful, the system underestimated my age by 4 to 16 years. In addition, on the current version, there’s no way to set the temperature, because that would kind of defeat the purpose. But the Valeo folks acknowledge that the interface has a long way to go, especially considering cultural differences—Americans like to switch the A/C to Arctic Blast while Europeans apparently prefer a gentle breeze.
Still, the potential is pretty obvious. In terms of the base goal, Valeo says the system can reduce energy consumption by 30 percent—that’s like instantly boosting the Ford Mustang Mach-E‘s range from 300 miles to nearly 400. And with all the data it collects, the system can respond empathetically, triggering stress-reducing lighting, sounds, and fragrances, or alerting a drowsy driver when it’s time to pull over for a nap. All good—provided you can get used to the idea that your car knows how you feel and what you’re wearing.