We’ve previously reported on the increasing relevance of new automotive upholstery and interior-surface materials as they gain traction versus traditional materials (primarily leather). New materials respond to new needs and wants including increased demands for sustainability, recyclability, light weight, good acoustic performance (noise absorption), desire for differentiation and a marketing need to demonstrate the automobile is a clean object and car manufacturers are responsible and concerned about the planet.
What are these new materials? Well, interior suppliers have used kenaf, flax and other natural materials for years. Those materials often are used in door panels as filler, with a vinyl or leather skin. But automakers have been reluctant to use kenaf as a surface material because to some people it might look cheap and unfinished. So natural materials are most of the time relegated to B-surfaces—we’ll take a detailed look at them another time.
Other natural fibers derived from plants begin to be used and mixed with usual components to create new fabrics. As an example, JLR’s new Evoque offers seating upholstered in a textile made from eucalyptus which boasts an excellent sustainability profile, since it is a plant that is not very water-intensive. The Eucalyptus Melange is 30 percent tensile fibers from eucalyptus bark, and the other 70 percent is polyester.
There are other natural fiber/polyester composites, too. Danish textile manufacturer Kvadrat provides a blend of polyester and wool—appreciated for its temperature control capacity. This wool-blend fabric is paired with a synthetic suede on the seats of the new Evoque, as a second non-leather uphostery option. The synthetic suede in this case, Dinamica® from Sage subsidiary Miko of Italy, uses recycled polyester derived from T-shirts and PET from soda and water bottles. Thus it has a high content of recycled material and is itself 100% recyclable. Recycling polyester means reducing energy consumption and CO2 emissions by 80% compared to the traditional petrol-based polyester production process. We can also find it in the Mercedes G-Class.
There are the vegetal-based eco-leathers, called that by the manufacturers even though the term “leather” means tanned animal skin. In these eco-leathers the grainy look of real leather can be provided—as seen in the apple-based leather in the VW ID Roomzz concept car.
Luxury automakers in particular are embracing the vegan trend. Tesla dropped animal leather from its seats two years ago. Volvo’s Polestar 2 has WeaveTech, a material they describe as high-end, non-animal based, leather-free, and vegan. It’s said to be water- and dirt-resistant and inspired by scuba dive suit material. Audi Head of Design Marc Lichte says vegan leather is a significant plus point for buyers. Two new Audi concepts, the e-tron GT and e-tron Q4, will be animal-free: synthetic leather will replace traditional animal leather and the cushions, armrests, headliner, window trims and center console will be produced with recycled materials. The carpets are sustainable, too, as they’re made from old fishing nets and plastic bottles. Audi plans to expand the vegan leather upholstery option beyond the concept realm to production cars, as well.
Mark Takahashi, a Senior Review Editor at Edmunds, says non-animal upholstery is not really a new trend—what’s new is its branding and promotion. “It was never called ‘vegan leather’ until very recently”, he says, noting that the new materials are quite nice: “these non-leathers are very convincing; it’s hard to tell the difference between leather and vegan leather”. BMW’s leatherette (an imitation leather made of vinyl) has been available for decades, but five years ago that automaker upped their game and began calling it SensaTec to promote the vast advances in its look, feel, and performance over what many car buyers might think of when words like “vinyl” and “leatherette” are used. The SensaTec material, which is standard fitment on numerous BMW vehicle ranges including the 2 Series, 3 Series, 5 Series, X2, X3 and X4, is a recycled blend of wool and other materials dyed with plant-based coloring. Like Mercedes-Benz’s highly-regarded MB-Tex, SensaTec is more durable than leather, more water- and stain-resistant, easier to clean, and more comfortable because it breathes better. All those advantages make it potentially a bit of an eyebrow-raiser that buyers can “upgrade” to leather for between $1,400 and $2,500.
Then there are non-vegetal synthetic leathers, often made from polyamide microfibre and polyurethane. And Eleather®, already in use on bus, train, and plane seats, is made of leather waste with no adhesive bonding—just hydroentanglement. Perhaps it has a future in car seat upholstery applications.
BMW iNext upholstery
BMW iNext upholstery
In the 21st century, upholstery materials are more than just fine surfaces to sit on. Textiles have become intelligent by incorporating electronic components and new functional capacities. Beyond the common integration of presence sensors for seatbelt and airbag systems, the textile can evolve as a structure. At the last CES, BMW presented their iNext concept with “smart textile” upholstery: at each entrance, light spots come on to follow the movements of the fingers and thus produce a reaction signal. The jacquard fabric surface of the back lightens on contact with the fingers. It allows to control the music playback by different gestures, on the fabric that incorporates LEDs. This “shy-tech”, as it is called, transforms high-end decorative elements into control tools.