Uncertainty in a world of autonomy

29 April 2019



At the Lectra Motor Show in March, the leather and automotive industries came together to examine the future trajectory of car design. The development of self-driving cars may appear to marginalise leather as an interior material, but the ongoing need for luxury, personalisation and durability ensure that the future outlook is bright, as Leather International reports.


The future of leather is inextricably intertwined with the future of the car industry. As car production increases around the world, this could mean a growing market for leather, but technological advances will soon change the interior of cars forever.

At the Lectra Motor Show 2019, held in Bordeaux in early March, experts in car design, leather cutting and interiors created a vision of the future in which a clear role for leather must be defined.

Global production of light vehicles is forecast to grow by 23% between 2019 and 2031, according to industry analysts at IHS Markit. This represents a jump from 95 million to 117 million units, driven largely by rapid growth in China and South Asia, while the markets in North America, Europe and Japan remain relatively flat. Overall, this suggests a growing opportunity to provide leather to the automotive sector – but there are some important caveats to bear in mind.

The most important factor to consider is that the development of car interiors is likely to be defined by the evolution of autonomous cars. As self-driving vehicles steadily become the norm, as many in the industry expect them to, the change in interior modelling will not consist of a few tweaks, but of radical redesigns. For the leather industry, the challenge is to find a place in this new world.

“The car interior is becoming a new living space,” said Marc Douay, worldwide automotive marketing director for Lectra, at the event. “We have to take a comprehensive view of the impact of mega-trends on the automotive interior.”

23%
Forecasted growth in global production of light vehicles between 2019 and 2031.
IHS Markit

Levels of autonomy

Limited autonomy in vehicles is already a reality. Additional features for safety and comfort, and the introduction of features such as cruise control represented Level 1 of autonomy. Level 2 consists of a driver assistance system that can briefly take control, adaptive cruise control, lane control and parking assist capability. Level 3 represents highly automated driving, where driver assistance takes control of the vehicle for extended periods, and highly advanced detection systems can identify roads, lanes and vehicles to enable motorway pilot capability or automated parking.

Parts of the industry are already at Level 3. The Audi A8, for instance, comes with Level 3 automated driving as standard. The changes that will come with Level 4, in which driver assistance takes full control so that the driver’s attention is not required, and Level 5, where there is no driver at all, and the vehicle handles all driving and navigation functions, will dramatically change how vehicles look and how passengers experience them.

A radical redesign of car interiors

The features that will define the interiors of autonomous cars are lightweighting, cabin comfort, safety and versatility. As cars dispense with large combustion engines and switch to more compact power devices such as fuel cells or batteries, there will be more interior space. Autonomous driving will lead to rotating seats as the driver will, ultimately, not have to face the front to watch the road.

Seats will be able to fully recline and there is potential for customisable seating, which will allow passengers to take out one set of seats and fit another in order to fulfil a different purpose as vehicles adopt different interior modes.

“Autonomy will drive a major change,” remarked Madris Hamitouche, senior component analyst at IHS Markit. “Cabin comfort, safety and passenger experience are the most important factors. Seating comfort is very important. Even with the normal configuration of two seats in the front and three in the back, we are moving towards individual bucket seats, and the use of more stylish and durable materials.”

“At Level 5 autonomy, we will see rotating seats and different configurations – family mode, lounge mode, meeting mode – and we will see the use of voice control as with Siri, Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa – to control the car.

“So, there will be no steering wheel. The vehicle will become a third living space. The interior will become a new space that is more comfortable and more luxurious. As we reach Level 4, there will be less leather used, except for the seat cover. OEMs are looking at plastics for seat covers and instrument panels,” he added.

Hamitouche believes that more plastic materials will be used in the car interior, in part because connectivity is a key issue, and touch panels will become an intrinsic part of the design to enable passenger interaction with the vehicle.

Daring designs for a shared future

Designs for autonomous cars, which will all ultimately be electric, embrace the notion of shared mobility. Many people may no longer individually own a vehicle but instead call on a vehicle for a specific use at a specific time. The type of vehicle that arrives will be different according to its purpose. Even those who own a vehicle may share it, so that it is used instead of sitting idle.

“It is a time of great opportunity,” remarked Gjoko Muratovski, director of the Myron E Ullman School of Design at the University of Cincinnati. “We are on the verge of a new beginning, where companies can redefine the future of mobility.”

“We are an industry of change,” added Juan Antonio Islas Muñoz, head of transportation design at the Ullman School of Design. “We must respond to the trends that are happening. Autonomous and shared mobility may reduce the number of vehicles on the road. The interior of an autonomous car becomes key because less attention on the road is needed.”

Muñoz estimates that, by 2035, 75% of cars in urban areas of the US will be Level 5 autonomous, while shared ownership will account for 80% of the cars on the road. He foresees a future in which interiors are interchangeable.

A more radical idea for cars in highly congested cities is the Bromelia. This drives into the city autonomously, allowing the passengers who are sharing the journey to work or relax, rather than endure the stress of traffic jams. Once it arrives, it parks with other Bromelia cars in a designated area that, during the working day, becomes a park where people can relax and use the vehicles as cabins.

Interestingly, the Bromelia features no leather, but an ergonomic design using plastic, behind which water flows. In many proposed designs for autonomous cars, leather is either a minor component or does not feature at all. Nevertheless, there are voices that advocate for its continued use.

A sustainable and reusable resource

Florian Schrey, vice-president of Global Design at GST Seton AutoLeather, sees leather as an interior of the future, as well as the past and the present. He believes that, as a natural product, leather has many desirable qualities beyond its texture and durability.

“Leather is a naturally grown and recycled product,” he remarked at the conference. “Tesla bent its knee to PETA and took leather out of its cars. Then someone coined the term ‘vegan leather’, which is made from mushrooms and is really a plastic. The world does not need more plastic. We are so drawn by the technology of electric cars and autonomous driving that we forget people – we forget who is driving.

“Luxury used to mean use the best and don’t care about the rest, but what if reduction of waste was the new luxury?” he added. “The number of hides available depends on how much meat people eat and we are increasing yield so that we can get more out of each hide. We can also switch to types of leather that can be recycled, as Volvo has done. We can use chrome-free vegetable-tanned leather, which is a respectful approach applied to a historic material.”

He envisages the possibility of creating a personalised, 3D-printed seat for autonomous cars that can be used in any vehicle, which could use leather as the preferred covering. He also sees leather from passenger seats being reused to make door panels or other leather items at the end of a car’s life.

“Four seats from one car could make 24 pairs of men’s shoes or 12 handbags,” he observed. “Instead of shredding it or burning it, we could turn it into money.”

As a provider of advanced leather-cutting technology, Lectra also sees leather playing a major role in car interiors. The company’s mission is to empower automotive leaders to drive operational excellence, and the latest version of its Versalis machine puts it as the forefront of industry 4.0 technology, which leverages digital capability to enable faster and more agile end-to-end product development and manufacturing solutions.

Using cloud computing, the industrial internet of things, big data and advanced analytics, the 2019 version of Versalis and LeatherSuite V7 incorporates enhanced scanning, nesting and cutting capability that can achieve throughput of up to 20 hides an hour. The automatic nesting improves yield by an average of 7% on automotive programmes, as it allows zero buffer between parts and makes the most efficient use of space on each hide. Furthermore, it can connect to an operator’s ERP system, allowing the business to set its own KPIs for benchmarking and managing performance.

We may well be on the verge of a future in which shared mobility means fewer cars are on the road, steering wheels have disappeared, the materials used for interiors will be decided by their potential for connectivity as well as comfort, and seats are lighter and interchangeable.

This sounds very positive for smart fabrics and gloomy for leather, but there is no doubt that leather will continue as a luxury material of choice in interiors that are becoming living spaces, and where comfort and passenger experience are high priorities.

The Lectra Motor Show showcased innovations that could play a part in autonomous vehicles.
Lectra is prepping to fully immerse in industry 4.0.


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