DETROIT – Premium materials play a huge role in the perception of quality and craftsmanship in vehicle interiors and that isn’t expected to change, despite what autonomous and shared vehicles might bring.

Materials, from foam substrates to the leather, alternative fabrics and plastics or the wood veneer covering it, all need to focus on why those elements enhance the product, says Thomas Gould, director-industrial design and craftsmanship at automotive supplier Adient and a panelist discussing premium materials in automotive interiors at the 2017 Wards Auto Interiors Conference.

“It’s all about the perception,” Gould says. “The product is perceived in large part by the materials we use.”

Vehicle ownership likely will start to decline with the rise of shared mobility, but miles traveled will increase, requiring even better vehicle interiors and experiences. Lighting also will play a role as automakers take cues from concepts such as the Kia Telluride’s therapeutic illumination that, like lighting in the Boeing Dreamliner, is intended to offset the effects of jet lag, Gould suggests.

Either in response to consumer preference or because of disappearing rare-earth metals, Gould anticipates alternative high-tech fabrics and man-made materials such as leather grown from DNA will begin to supplant the traditional leather, metal, wood and fabrics now in use.

Don’t be too quick to count out leather, argues Stephen Jeske, senior vice president-sales, marketing and product development at GST Autoleather, one of three global suppliers of leather products.

“People love the look, they love the feel and they love the aroma” of real leather, Jeske points out. Leather is natural, customizable and as a beef-industry byproduct is even eco-friendly, Jeske notes, so it’s doubtful the material will go out of favor any time soon.

But change is coming in terms of how leather is treated, with antiquing, laser etching, quilting and use of perforation as key design trends in the industry.

Use of premium materials in the future might come in unexpected ways, says panelist Gary Braddock, design partner-Pocketsquare Design. Braddock traced the arc of automotive interior materials starting with real metal and wood for years, followed by a huge amount of plastic use, and now a return to a combination of plastics along with real wood, metallic surfaces and leather.

In the future, we can expect what Pocketsquare dubs “decotainment” – the “artful blend” of controls within the decorative elements of an interior. One example that could translate to vehicles is Bang & Olufsen’s audio-system control that uses internal illumination projected through a thin wood veneer to indicate status. When the system is off, the blank wood surface is all that appears.

Other examples include using the surfaces of heating and cooling vents as the control surfaces to set temperature, using backlighting through thin materials to simulate touchscreens or video screens or switches, and applying transparent O-LED (Organic-Light Emitting Diode) screens to create more free-form interiors.

bgritzinger@wardsauto.com @bobgritzinger