Given South Africa’s electricity crisis, it’s probably not surprising that many are unsure about the move to electric cars. However, the quest for more environmentally friendly motoring is not just about the way a car is propelled, but the materials that are used in it.
Every carmaker is currently looking at the use of more sustainable materials, from humble family hatchbacks to the best luxury models. It all started with the use of vegan-friendly upholstery to replace leather, even the use of hemp in dashboards like those on the BMW i3.
Today clever science and engineering people are looking at a whole range of new materials, some of which might really surprise you. For example, did you know that used tomato skins can actually be used to make hoses in engines, or that tequila manufacturer Jose Cuervo is supplying the discarded agave plant fibres to make bioplastic for car components?
Car mats are a popular area for the use of sustainable materials. Audi and Volkswagen’s sporty brand, Cupra, both use Econyl in their electric models, made from recycled nylon. Mercedes-Benz uses it for the mats in its new S-Class too. Recycled fishing nets are becoming a common element in floor mats too, but some companies are even making them out of pineapple leaves, which fascinatingly can also be used to make fake suede upholstery.
Tesla gets much of the attention for its environmentally friendly interior, although it tends not to like to talk about the fact that its steering wheels are still trimmed with leather. Jaguar-Land Rover, Mercedes and Volvo all provide the option of Dinamica for their upholstery, a material made from old clothing and recycled plastic bottles. Porsche provides the option of recycled polyester for its seats in the Taycan electric vehicle and you can trim the upholstery of your Range Rover with Kvadrat, which combines synthetic suede with wool.
Bentley is working on Vegea and has already used it in some of its concepts. This material looks and feels like leather but is made from grape skins, although Bentley prefers to make it sound a bit more posh by describing it as coming from wine-making. Sounding far less posh, Bentley has also found wood that is thousands of years old in swamps, which reduces the need to cut down trees for its meticulously crafted veneers and it has even used rice husks to create paint.
Mazda started out as a cork-making company early in the last century before becoming a car maker. Today it is using cork in some of its cars. Mini used cork for the door trims and dashboard of the Paul Smith Mini Strip concept recently, model which really showcases sustainable materials with its rope for door handles and recycled rubber for floor mats.
Sustainability is a big topic of course for tyre makers, with companies such as Pirelli and Michelin all focused on using sustainable rubber. Continental has even made truck tyres from dandelion roots, but it has also developed a new material that can be used for dashboards and door panels called Benova Eco Protect.
While the sustainability focus is mostly on the interiors, there are developments happening with the exterior of vehicles. Much of this is being driven by the need to reduce weight, especially in electric vehicles and so car companies are looking at recycled plastics for areas such as tailgates and even wheel inserts.
Sustainability goes beyond the components though to the idea of not actually buying your car new. Yes we all love that feeling of collecting a new car that no-one else has ever driven, but the circular economy benefits from choosing a used car that doesn’t require new materials at all. Then there’s the fact that a quarter of all the CO2 created over the lifecycle of a vehicle is in its production. Given the supply constraints at the moment that are causing a global shortage of new vehicles, buying used is not only good for the environment, it could also mean getting into that luxury car you want quicker too.
Luxury carmakers are working hard on developing materials that feel just as luxurious as those we are used to, but we could also see sustainability being a little retro with the return to the feel of cloth and even plastic covers on wheels. There’s no doubt that the leather you find in a luxury model tomorrow might well not be leather at all.