Car seats made from pineapples?

PHOTO: Big Fish Publishing

Carmakers may soon ditch animal hides for innovative new upholstery materials, including silk, wool and even sustainable vinyl made from discarded pineapple leaves.

Options for seating surfaces do not generally extend beyond leather, a leather lookalike, some sort of utilitarian twill fabric or, if you happen to be in the market for a used Oldsmobile, button-tufted velour.

But that may be changing.

A range of emerging textiles - including sustainable upholstery materials that are lighter, tougher and less expensive than animal hides - could dramatically expand cars' interior options.

"Prior to 1938, everything we used was based on renewable, natural, found resources," said Sam Hudson, a materials expert at the North Carolina State University College of Textiles.

But that changed in 1938, when nylon was commercialised. "That was the first totally first synthetic, petrochemical fibre."

Despite the growing range of options, leather remained as one of the most common options.

While nylon and other synthetic textiles offered versatility and comfort, people perceived leather as luxurious - a status symbol, Hudson said.

Now, tastes are changing. Leather is so common in cars that it no longer feels exclusive.

And nearly 1 per cent of the UK follows a vegan lifestyle, according to a 2016 survey by The Vegan Society, which is up by more than 350 per cent since 2006.

Education about livestock practices and environmental stewardship is growing too, and that means an interest in alternatives to animal products.

Even Rolls-Royce, whose leather team uses a dozen bovine hides to trim the interior of a single Phantom, recently unveiled a concept car with seating surfaces wrapped in ivory-coloured wool and silk upholstery.

Sam Hudson is part of a growing group of scientists returning to renewable resources for material development.

The resulting textiles are slowly moving out of the lab and into the commercialisation phase, which means you could someday see them as an option at your local car dealer.

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