TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Leather may not be long for this world when it comes to automotive interior materials.

So says Rose Ann Ryntz, a plastics expert and polymer chemist who is vice president-advanced development and material engineering for International Automotive Components, a major interiors supplier.

“I suggest leather will go away,” she says referring to a currently popular vehicle material, especially in high-end models. Her prediction comes at the annual Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars here.

Her reasoning is that leather processing of cow hides comes with environmental concerns. There also are long-term durability issues, especially in regions with extreme weather conditions that vehicles are exposed to, inside and out.

Then there’s the irony that synthetic materials can look like the real thing (such as leather and wood) yet wear better.

“Polyurethenes will replace leather because they look and feel so much like it,” Ryntz says. She foresees a greater use of Alcantara, a synthetic suede material currently used in luxury vehicles.

Another strike against leather, at least in the Chinese automotive market, the world’s largest: Car owners there tend to disdain interior materials that emit odors.

Comparing yesterday’s interiors to today’s, Ryntz notes that as late as 1997 they looked hard, bland and unadorned.

In contrast, modern interiors feature craftsmanship and integrated electronics. They come with decorative stitching, metallic accents, content-rich instrumentation and high-tech infotainment systems.

Consumers now place high importance on the insides of their vehicles, with a J.D. Power survey indicating they rank No.2 in cited purchase decisions.

But it is tricky for a global interiors supplier to make everyone happy, from automaker clients to individual consumers across generational lines.

“How do we get form, fit and finish to your expectations, and what are your expectations?” Ryntz says. “We have to be everything to everybody and design interiors that are acceptable to every OEM.”

She speaks of the underworld of interiors and her arcane interest in it. “I join materials. I need to understand what goes underneath, say, stitching.”

She predicts an increased use of 3-D robotics to perform stitching, but human craftsmanship will not go away.

One of her jobs is to oversee the joining of materials in product development. Rule of thumb: “Never put five layers of material together.”

Of impending self-driving car interiors, she says, “The material development and what people will expect will be intriguing.”

Ryntz offers a jocular look at the future of car interiors, including the possibility of a self-cleaning capability should an occupant who drinks too much get sick on the way home from a bar.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com