The future for automotive leather looks bright in autonomous cars

Attending the Lectra "Go Digital" VIP event in Bordeaux 25th - 26th April was an extremely interesting experience. Wonderfully extensive French hospitality aside, delegates were treated to two day's worth of detailed discussions about the future of leather in luxury vehicles, where it was reported that 160,000 hides were utilised per day in 2017.

A large amount of information and data was provided regarding the future trends in the reportedly robust automotive markets - where with the developments in autonomous driving technologies the passenger experience will become paramount in "the cockpit of the future". It is envisaged that the seating arrangement will no longer comprise driver, front passenger and rear seats, as all vehicle occupants will enjoy a space similar to their living rooms, with synonymous connectivity and comfort levels identical to their home environments. Everyone will be a passenger in an autonomous vehicle.

Individualisation also features on the agenda in the car of the future, with the predicted rise of 14% in the luxury and CUV (crossover utility vehicle - think tall large car for light off-road capability) vehicle segments in the next decade. Non-traditional use of colour and greater use of multiple colours other than the standard black or cream leather are already in use and this trend is set to continue. With personalisation comes customisation and we were shown how the market is more than ready to meet market demand in all areas, with OEM's increasingly responding to driver preference. We are no longer in the "any colour so long as it is black" mentality of the early days at Ford General Motors!

Car sharing as opposed to individual ownership is also predicted to be on the increase in the vehicle market of the future, with the increasing number of younger, more urban inhabitants not seeing the need to own a vehicle outright. This was where I repeatedly asked whether the younger, environmentally-conscious car-buyer of the future would shun leather as an unethical, "old man's" interior of choice as was echoed in this recent Telegraph article (see our firm rebuttal here), but was assured by various industry intelligence experts that a challenge by synthetic interiors would not come to pass. It was suggested that vehicles may soon no longer be a matter of outright purchase for one individual, but used as part of a lease, fleet or shared ownership scheme; through a move towards "experiential" driving. It was also hinted that as people age, they return to luxury - and leather.

Several thoughtful observations were also made, such as how to improve the circular economy of re-using leather car covers and whether leather in luxury cars is now routinely "improved" to such an extent that the average customer is no longer able to tell whether the faultless material is synthetic or genuine. Ongoing performance requirements in the use of leather with emerging technologies was also touched upon, with the need for leather to become "smart" to human touch, with impatience cited as the reason why some customers may choose synthetic materials over leather.

The discussion is to continue with Mark Chatwood, Global Director Key Accounts Leather Business, presenting “Profiling of leather – why positive campaigning is of crucial importance now” at the ILM Automotive Leather Supply Chain conference in Stuttgart on June 4, 2018. See more here.

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