The concept of autonomous driving is ubiquitous in the future of mobility. This self-driving dream has been transformative for the market, resulting in premium automotive brands trialing autonomous vehicles on test courses. New players, including high-tech organizations and disruptive startups, have also entered the market. These companies all compete for the front seat in next-generation mobility technology. What does this mobility future look like, and what part does leather have to play?

Reimagining mobility

If you didn’t have to keep your eyes on the road, what would you do? Everything in mobility interiors today focuses on facing forward, but already swivel chairs, work surfaces, and versatile storage are sneaking into car interiors. Each interior component can have a variety of functions, and as the steering wheel disappears, video screens, head-up displays, and other forms of visual devices will enter the ‘third living space.’ Autonomous interiors are designed around the passengers’ needs, with no focus on the driver who needs to be in control (Nelson, 2019). However, it also means new integrated technologies and automated systems that regulate temperature, air quality, and light intensity. We’re not even talking about mobility that is non-passenger focused, which has even more potential applications.

Leather and autonomous driving

The transformation of the interior will influence the materials used in cars. Materials will have to be more resistant to frequent use, abrasion, staining, soiling, and repeated maintenance with cleaning agents. Automotive leather fulfils all requirements when it comes to choosing materials for car interiors: Leather is a highly durable seating material, and a luxurious option for dashboards, trims, and details. On top of that, there is a demand for car interiors to function as a ‘living/working space,’ where people can use entertainment systems or complete work-related tasks. Leather is a material that offers a level of comfort no plastic-based alternative can aspire too.

The road to automated driving

Automated driving has been on the horizon for years, and it is not just about letting go of the steering wheel. Vehicles today contain a lot of technology that enables partly automated driving, from power steering and cruise control to integrated technologies and biocompatible surfaces (such as leather control panels or temperature-regulating seats). The idea of automated driving springs from early concepts of radio-controlled cars, during the twenties and thirties. Industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes predicted a future of automated driving in his book ‘Magic Motorways’ during the 1980s, where control by humans was eliminated for the sake of safety, the shift from an ‘automated’- to ‘autonomous’-driving concept occurred soon after this.

Although automotive leather has always appeared in car interiors, leather's general perceptions are again becoming positive, and leather seats and trims are here to stay.

From automated to autonomous

The difference between “automated” and “autonomous” is in where the power or decision lies. An automated task is usually repetitive, and does not require the same decision-making level as an autonomous task. Autonomy requires independence and, therefore, an autonomous vehicle needs to be able to assess the external environment and adapt to multiple factors and risks. In the last three decades, many experiments on vehicle autonomy have been conducted, but clearly it required technology and idea to align in time. Automated vehicles have shown promising results since then, and in some applications, such as warehouse logistics and mining, their use is already frequent. However, current concerns about autonomous driving have limited this technology in automotive or personal mobility applications.

The Society of Automotive Engineers established a 6-level classification system to define the roadmap to fully autonomous driving:

  • Level 0 (No Driving Automation)
    Manually controlled vehicles, where the human provides the ‘dynamic driving tasks.’ There may be systems in place to help the driver (such as an automatic braking system).
  • Level 1 (Driver Assistance)
    Vehicles with single automated systems for driver assistance, such as steering or accelerating (cruise control). Adaptive cruise control also qualifies as Level 1 as the human monitors other aspects of driving.
  • Level 2 (Partial Driving Automation)
    Vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems that can take control of both steering and accelerating/decelerating. Automation is not self-driving because the human driver can intervene at any time.
  • Level 3 (Conditional Driving Automation)
    The automated driving system performs most driving tasks and monitors the driving environment. However, the human driver can intervene in the case of any trouble.
  • Level 4 (High Driving Automation)
    The vehicle performs all driving tasks under specific circumstances (geofencing). Human override is still an option.
  • Level 5 (Full Automation)
    The vehicle performs all driving tasks. No human intervention is required.

Developments do not necessarily follow this trajectory. While there are currently Level 4 automated driving projects underway and at advanced stages of implementation, no Level 3 vehicles are currently available. This is because the regulatory mechanisms weren’t in place to adequately address liability.

So, while Audi delivered the first commercially available vehicle with level 3 autonomy, known as the ‘Traffic Jam Pilot’, the technology did not go live because of the uncertainty around liability and regulations. The EU implemented the first regulations on autonomous driving in 2020, opening the door for Level 3 implementation.

An autonomous future?

Most vehicles will soon be in a semi-autonomous state. This shift will highly impact interiors as they require a hybridization between interventional driving and autonomous driving. It is not very likely that the shift towards semi-autonomous cars will progress rapidly, as there are many concerns regarding self-driving cars. These concerns relate to data management, insurance, security & privacy, as well as the use of artificial intelligence.

The functions of other automotive businesses, such as gas stations, dealerships and garages, will also change. The business models of these businesses are radically changing in line with an autonomous future. Accenture describes autonomous driving as ‘the biggest disruptor for the automotive and transportation industry since Henry Ford developed the assembly line in 1908, particularly, as it requires industry convergence on a not previously seen level. The latest thing? Quantum computing may have far-reaching implications for automotive driving, where efficiently dealing with variations and complex systems can boost efficiency (Burkacky et al., 2020).

Leather is still the preferred premium interior material

Amidst the high-tech autonomous innovation, the material revolution continues. As brands promote regenerative agriculture, we are likely to see a return to traditional materials. Leather is a natural material, which counterbalances the technology-infused environment of a third living space (the autonomous car interior). Leather also offers many desired properties. Although automotive leather has always appeared in car interiors, leather’s general perceptions are again becoming positive, and leather seats and trims are here to stay.

Selected sources:

  • Sokurenko, W. (2017) Designing Interiors for Autonomous Vehicles. Retrieved from: Today’s Motor Vehicles.
  • Bel Geddes, N. (1940) Magic Motorways. Random House Publishing
  • Accenture (2015) Autonomous driving – are OEMs losing the driver seat? Retrieved from: Accenture.
  • Accenture (2017) Autonomous vehicles: Plotting a route to a driverless future. Retrieved from: Accenture.
  • Accenture (2018) Automated Driving: The Race is On. Retrieved from: Accenture.
  • Zou, B., Chen, Y., Liu, Y., Xie, R., Du, Q., Zhang, T., Shen, Y., Zheng, B., Li, S., Wu, J., Zhang, W., Huang, W., Huang, X., Huo, F., Adv. Sci. 2019, 6, 1801283.
  • SAE (2018) Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to Driving Automation Systems for On-Road Motor Vehicles. Retrieved from: SAE.
  • Edelstein, S. (2020) Audi gives up on Level 3 autonomous driver-assist system in A8. Retrieved from: Motor Authority.
  • EUR-Lex (2019) Regulation (EU) 2019/2144 of the European Parliament and of the Council. Retrieved from: EUR-Lex
  • Nelson, C. (2019) Inside the Cocoon: What to Expect from Automated-Vehicle Interiors. Retrieved from: Automobile Mag.
  • St. Antoine, A. (2019) Driverless Cars: Where They Stand Now. Retrieved from: Automobile Mag.
  • McKinsey. Future Mobility – Automated Driving. Retrieved from: McKinsey.
  • Burkackey, O., Mohr, N., Pautasso, L. (2020) Will Quantum Computing drive the automotive future? Retrieved from: McKinsey.
  • Rychel, A. (2018) The interior of driverless cars: 5 game-changing business models. Retrieved from: 2025 AD: Driven by Driverless.

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