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Benecke-Kaliko's Xpreshn surface material accents a soft-touch feel. 

That 'new car smell' is forcing interior materials changes

The sensory elements of smell, touch, sound, and sight are influencing material innovations for vehicle interiors more than ever.

Chinese car buyers abhor certain new car smells. And with annual light-duty passenger vehicle sales in China projected to reach 29 million by 2020, according to forecasters IHS Automotive, there are clear financial reasons for ridding car and truck interiors of the objectionable odors associated with certain plasticizers and adhesives.

“That odor kind of goes hand-in-hand with VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) requirements, and China to a certain extent is going to lead how VOC limits are set,” Rose Ann Ryntz, Ph.D., Vice President of Advanced Development & Material Development at International Automotive Components (IAC), said in an interview with Automotive Engineering at the 2016 WardsAuto Interiors Conference in Detroit.

Although it’s unlikely that all OEMs will have the same VOC specification standards, organic chemicals are on the industry’s docket, said Ryntz, moderator of a materials innovation panel at the conference.

“We’re moving away from VOC-laden PVC slush [programs] at IAC, and we’re looking to do more with polymeric plasticizers for slush PVC as well as slush TPE-type [projects]. We’re also looking at how the construction of vacuum formed bi-laminates are put together with adhesives, since the adhesives can be a big source of VOC and odor,” she said.

A soft-touch Xpreshn

3M debuted a new line of low-VOC attachment tapes at the WardsAuto conference. These thin tapes are designed for armrests, center consoles, instrument panels, door bolsters, and other interior applications that require bonding and dimensional stability during lamination.

The recently launched Xpreshn Lux, a low VOC surface material in Benecke-Kaliko’s Xpreshn product line, gives a soft-touch sensation to instrument panels, door trims and other cabin locales, according to Dominik Beckman, the company’s Global Director of Marketing and Innovation Management. Benecke-Kaliko is part of the ContiTech group.

“It has an ultra-soft lacquer coating, and the formulation is ultra-soft as is the foam layer. The whole construction is ultra-soft. It’s more than just a soft foam, Beckman said about Xpreshn Lux.

Company officials claim that Xpreshn Lux is up to 500% softer than Tepeo, Benecke-Kaliko’s low density polyolefin foil that is used in surface materials. Xpreshn Lux is marking its global debut on the Cadillac XTS sold in China. “Our Xpreshn Lux gives an ultra-luxury touch sensation as a lower-cost alternative to leather,” said Beckman.

Xpreshn Lux is thermoformed. An up-level Xpreshn version is in the final stages of development. It "will be cut-and-sew for a TPO-type of material, so that’s definitely different than the traditional processing method of vacuum-forming,” Beckman told Automotive Engineering.

Reducing NVH, raising aesthetics

An interior that’s not roaring with road, wind, and engine noise is especially desirable for drivers using voice commands for navigation, entertainment, and other in-vehicle communications.

According to plastics industry consultant Robert Eller, “There are some very interesting things happening with polyurethane foams using graphene and other forms of carbon to improve the acoustic performance on both sides of the firewall.”

An ‘exposed’ composite material could heighten a vehicle interior’s visual appeal, said Megan McConnell, Advanced Color and Materials Designer in Fiat Chrysler Automobiles U.S. Product Design Office. “By emphasizing [composites] as a design feature and eliminating the surface materials, we reduce weight, cost, and complexity,” McConnell said.

Although innovations are influenced by regulations, standards, and customer preferences, cost remains a crucial factor in materials selection.

“If you look at automotive seating, you can see that the profitability has been driven out. That’s why we see many of the tier one [suppliers] escaping that sector,” Eller said. “That’s something we like to look at as an impediment to innovations. Or sometimes, it’s a stimulant.”

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