Look beyond leather – Tougher, lighter and less expensive car interior materials worth your attention

Leather, its faux lookalike, or a utilitarian twill fabric are considered to be the de-facto automobile interior material choice for most. Before the year 1938, most materials used were based on natural, renewable resources. All that changed when nylon was commercialised that very year. Nylon was the first, completely synthetic petrochemical fibre. Despite nearly eight decades since that day, leather has remained the popular choice of material for a very long time. While synthetic textiles such as nylon offer comfort and versatility, leather is perceived to be a ‘luxurious and premium’ material akin to a status symbol.

However newer types of upholstery materials that are tougher, lighter and less expensive than traditional animal skins could revolutionise the choices available to customers while customising their automobile interiors. Leather has become so common, especially among luxury and ultra-high-end cars that it no longer evokes a feeling of occasion among some car occupants. Changing food habits may also have a part to play in this. As per a survey by the Vegan Society conducted in 2016, 1% of the UK now follows a vegan diet – a massive jump of nearly 350% in a single decade. There is a growing awareness about environmental stewardship and livestock practices leading to an interest in alternatives to animal products such as leather. Even Rolls- Royce, well-known for using supple leather in its flagship Phantom, recently showcased a concept car that had an interior with silk upholstery and ivory – coloured wool.

A group of scientists is working on renewable resources once again to develop automobile interior materials. These resultant textiles are slowly moving from the conceptual into the commercial phase, meaning that one could go and purchase these materials very soon at a local car dealer. Carmakers are seeking the perfect confluence of performance, aesthetic appeal and comfort, with environmental sustainability thrown in for good measure. Material science has advanced to the stage where a genuinely luxurious synthetic fabric or advancements in tried-and-tested de-facto materials are available now. Some choices are –

  • Artificial leather – Synthetic leather and vinyl substitutes are considered to be rather ‘downmarket’ by many car buyers and a material that must be endured rather than enjoyed. These materials tend to become chilly in winter, sticky in the summer and give off an unappealing smell. However, car makers have taken it as a challenge upon themselves to improve the material’s rather poor reputation. Toyota’s SofTex material dries much faster than leather and has even beaten it handily in a few independent durability tests. The German trinity of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen offer faux materials that look very similar to – and sometimes even outperform – real leather. These materials are substantially cheaper and can even be treated with a leather scent to give a truly complete and convincing experience.
  • Carbon fibre fabric – Carbon fibre is typically associated with supercars that rely on its unique combination of high strength and light weight. There are few manufacturers who have been able to deploy this expensive material as successfully as Lamborghini. The legendary carmaker lavishly used a carbon fabric known as CarbonSkin to deck up the cockpit of its concept Aventador J roadster. As with other models that are commercially available, the carbon fibre used in CarbonSkin is very strong, extremely lightweight, but unfortunately still stratospherically expensive.
  • Pineapple fibre faux suede – More than 20 million tonnes of pineapple are produced worldwide every year. It seems that its leaves contain a flexible fibre useful as a faux suede 2/3rd the cost of and 1/4th the weight of genuine leather. This material has been christened Piñatex by the creator Carmen Hijosa. The leaves are sourced from the Philippines where a decorticating machine separates them into biomass and fibre, and the latter is converted into sheets via felting and treated with a water-resistant coating. The creator of this unique material has worked with several designers to create jackets, shoes, handbags and even automobile interior upholstery.
  • Silk fabric – Cowhide has become somewhat less popular as a luxury material now, largely because every car from budget hatchbacks to flagship luxury sedans offer leather as an optional upgrade at the very least. On the other hand, silk retains its image of oozing class and sophistication. Maserati has tied up with renowned designer Ermenegildo Zegna to offer special edition models that use silk as an interior material. Despite its delicate appearance, the silk used by the carmaker is quite durable and has found application in everything ranging from clothes to parachutes across different temperature belts worldwide.
  • Wool fabric – Wool might not be the first material that comes to mind when asked to name alternatives to automobile leather interiors. However, designers are working on adapting it for modern tastes and requirements. Swiss company Climatex weaves synthetic fibre with wool in such a unique way that the two materials can be separated at the end of their useful life, allowing them to be separately recycled and disposed of! Wool has the capability to control temperature while the synthetic fibre is vital to extending the material lifetime. Modern science has allowed the synthetic fibre to be moulded as required; hence giving the fibre an appealing texture and colour is not very difficult. The American company Lantal already uses this material in some buses.

Sudip Saha

Sudip Saha is one of the leading tech consultants in APAC, having served at key positions in leading IT consulting firms. He has extensively written about the commercial viability and impact of next-generation technologies, most notably AI, IoT, and Big Data. Sudip’s forte lies in offering a nuanced analysis on the key developments in the tech landscape. A reputed thought-leader, his views have been published in leading publications, including CIO, ZD Net, Economic Times, and The Economist