Plants are invading car cabins

Leather and carbon fibre vehicle interiors are giving way to vegan materials

09 May 2019 - 11:30 By Bloomberg and hannah elliot
The days of traditional leather-clad interiors may be numbered, making way for more eco-friendly materials.
The days of traditional leather-clad interiors may be numbered, making way for more eco-friendly materials.
Image: Supplied

Carbon fibre used to be the ultimate symbol when it came to showing just how much money you could spend on your car's interior.

An expansive dash, custom-carved door panels and Nappa leather seats demonstrated to anyone who cared to look that this was an expensive, sporty and unique vehicle.

But now it's time for plants.

"Fifty years ago, a leather couch was the height of luxury," says Massimo Frascella, Land Rover's creative director, who is a vegan. "Now in the best hotels and homes you would never see that. It's a similar process with cars. Going forward, sustainable design is providing the framework for change."

Frascella was in Manhattan during the New York auto show last month to unveil Land Rover's new line of leather-free, fully vegan materials developed to outfit its 2020 Range Rover Evoque, Range Rover Velar and Jaguar I-Pace SUVs.

"There are a growing number of people who are concerned with the provenance of the textiles and materials in their vehicle," he says. The new interiors are meant to attract those consumers for whom the highest form of luxury aligns with their eco beliefs.

The marque's proprietary Eucalyptus Melange, for example — a textile produced from eucalyptus fibres — uses significantly less water than traditional materials such as plastic and Alcantara and can be dyed to match any color of the spectrum. It also uses a durable wool blend, from textile company Kvadrat, that feels like a soft wool sweater.

Dinamica Suedecloth is a flameproof and extremely durable, suede-mimicking microfibre made from recycled plastic bottles — 53 per vehicle, on average, according to Land Rover. Taken together, they provide a vegetarian, if not fully animal-product-free, option for the conscientious affluent.

Other automakers are also adding eco-conscious options to interiors. Volvo wants at least 25% of the plastics used in every newly launched model it launches by 2025 to be made from recycled materials. Today the percentage is about 5%. In February Volvo subsidiary Polestar touted that its first volume model, the Polestar 2, would have a vegan interior.

Toyota makes seat cushion material that uses glycol from renewable sugar cane rather than glycol derived from petroleum. Hyundai sources ground-up volcanic rock to form the support pillar coverings for its sedans; Ford developed a seat foam from soybeans; and Faraday Future has toyed with using rock fibres and cotton from discarded garments to line its cars.

Luxury brands have intensified the allure. In the heady world of $250,000 SUVs and six-figure hybrids, it's only fitting that the interiors are both plush and sustainable. In this arena, the medium is the message.

"This is part of a bigger global trend that we see continuing to grow," says Filip Brabec, Audi's vice-president for product management. "It has to do with consumers understanding more and more the implications of how we inhabit the environment, and how and what we eat."

Synthetic leather alone will make up a $45bn industry by 2025, according to business consulting firm Grand View Research, with automotive applications predicted to be the second-largest use for renewable textiles, after home furnishings. In this landscape, "responsibly sourced" and "premium alternatives" are the biggest buzzwords.

Audi has developed sustainable and even carbon-neutral materials for its electric vehicles. The seats of the Q4 e-tron SUV are made from recycled plastic, and the e-tron GT offers an interior option of synthetic leather and recycled microfibres, including a deep-pile Econyl yarn floor carpet made from used fishing nets. The entire car is vegan.

In its Aicon concept, Audi presented seat covers made from Climatex, a dual-layered fabric with a polyester top and pure wool bottom. It was developed in a way so the two layers could be separated by type and recycled at the end of the vehicle's life. Although it isn't going into production, these sorts of solutions indicate the way Audi foresees the future of interiors.

"We have had some nice firsts," Brabec says. "We see this as a big opportunity for us, and we are busy developing even more."

That is not to say there is not still plenty of business to be had in the old-fashioned world of burled walnut and buckskin. Just ask the folks at Bentley.

But Land Rover is anticipating a larger change in consumer tastes. It's introducing eco-conscious textiles in the Evoque, it's best-selling model in Europe, to promote Land Rover as an upscale, aspirational addition to the garage. Frascella says the materials do not carry an additional price premium over traditional textiles.