Sustainability to Transform Cockpit of the Future

Sustainability covers many areas, including the materials used within a vehicle’s cabin to make the dashboard, the paneling and the electronics used in today’s instrumentation. Drew Winter, principal analyst, cockpit of the future, Wards Intelligence, finds that there is significant consumer demand for automotive manufacturers to use sustainable materials, including for those unseen such as materials used for sound insulation. He believes their use in the construction of automaker’s vehicles is driven by the growth of EVs and worldwide environmental concerns.

Winter writes in a paper on the topic, ‘Behold the Cockpit’s Brave New Materials’: “The push for sustainable interior materials is not new but Sage Automotive Interiors’ Julie Jacobs says consumer demand is fueling the growing scope and seriousness of the efforts, especially among the rising tide of younger, environmentally conscious consumers who care deeply about how the vehicles they buy are made.” Apart from the need to use or reduce the use of materials that may harm the planet, there is also a prerequisite to use smart materials that can limit distraction while creating new cockpit experiences.

Conflicting wants and needs

Interestingly, he finds that there are conflicting consumers wants and needs. Consumers want their vehicle interiors to be a serene place “where they can relax and unwind”. That said, they also have an appetite for large amounts of information and infotainment wherever they want them. He explains why smart materials offer an opportunity: “Smart materials allow both. They provide attractive blank surfaces that look like wood and leather but they also are transparent and can immediately reveal display screens and control surfaces when desired.”

There is a need for product differentiation too, which can be offered by smart surfaces that can often offer what he describes as exciting design opportunities such as innovative lighting, haptics and new aesthetics. As for limiting driver distraction, he believes that smart surfaces offer the answer. “Smart surfaces can limit distraction by displaying only the information a driver needs at any one time when virtual buttons and controls are placed almost anywhere within most convenient reach.”

He says sustainable materials are being pushed hardest right now in BEVs “because they have marketing value to the environmentally conscious buyers that typically buy EVs.” Sustainable materials are, nevertheless, being developed for all vehicles because of “strict government mandates related to the recycling of vehicles – especially in Europe,” he explains.

As for the types of materials that are most of interest, there is a very long list of them. They include sustainable textiles which use recycled plastics from water bottles or plastic ocean waste such as old fishing nets. The list also includes used wine corks, waste products from Tequila factories, etc.

He adds: “What the textile industry favors most is post-consumer and post-industrial waste. Post industrial waste is usually scrap from their own yarn factories. Post-industrial waste is good because the textile manufactures know exactly what the material properties are. The bio waste most avoided is anything that could be turned into food for humans or animals.”

Beyond the sustainable cockpit

Stepping outside of the car for a moment and you’ll see that the theme of sustainability continues in the types of metals used to make the vehicle shells and exteriors. Claire Cunningham, associate director of Tala elaborates: “Steel and aluminum are the materials widely considered for automotive structures and steel is the most sustainable automotive material in the world from an environmental and recycling perspective. Steel is the only material that helps reduce emissions in all stages of the vehicle life cycle – material production, use and end-of-life. Steel E-Motive vehicles are engineered to meet current high-speed international crash test standards, as well as challenging intrusion targets that we conceived since they presently don’t exist for rear-facing occupants, accomplished by leveraging the Advanced High-Strength Steel portfolio.”

Cunningham says Steel E-Motive, an initiative of WorldAutoSteel, the automotive group of the World Steel Association and its engineering partner Ricardo, is a “vehicle engineering program that is developing virtual concepts for two fully autonomous and connected electric vehicles designed for Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) applications.” Within the process, she explains they are using Advanced High-Strength Steel (AHSS) technologies and products to design autonomous vehicle concepts to enable MaaS solutions which are safe, affordable, accessible, and environmentally conscious.”

More sustainable interiors

So, sustainability has a wide range of causes whenever it comes to the automotive sector. However, it’s important to note that cars themselves are the most recycled products because of steel, aluminum, and copper as they contain so much value. Winters finds that the materials used inside a vehicle are the least valuable, simply because they are the hardest to recycle.

He argues that the introduction of more sustainable interiors will inevitably and substantially “enhance the sustainability of vehicles and create a new stream of plastic materials”. He concludes by suggesting smart surfaces will enable designers to create cockpits that are safer, more intuitive and more beautiful than ever.

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