Consumers’ car-buying decisions increasingly reflect their attitudes toward sustainability, climate change and even meat-free diets.
That’s the message coming from Ford of Europe’s Sonja Verdenberk, chief designer of color and materials. Speaking to Wards at the recent Frankfurt auto show, Verdenberk says lifestyle choices are playing a major role in the design of vehicle interiors.
Verdenberk explains her role in helping the Blue Oval brand build emotional connections with its cars: “I am responsible for all the surfaces that people touch in the car, from the paint to the plastics to the seat materials. People buy because they have an emotional bond with the car, and we translate this into the shape and types of materials that they touch.
“It means soft where you expect it to be soft and materials that feel sturdy when you need them to be.”
As with so much in life, first impressions are paramount in helping a customer choose their next vehicle, Verdenberk explains.
“The interiors are designed on the first-glance, second-glance, third-glance principle. This means that when you open the door you immediately understand the environment. Then the second part is how you interact with everything by trying things out. Then there’s the feeling of being at home with the environment.
“It’s this feeling-at-home where the color and types of materials used comes in. It’s about using materials that people recognize from their home environment and that they feel comfortable with, and makes the car like an extension of their personality.”
While the reasons for the bond between a consumer and a car’s interior may not have changed much from when car ownership became a mass-market experience, the types of materials being favored certainly have, Verdenberk says.
“Until quite recently, leather, leather, leather was still the ultimate proof of luxury in a vehicle. But it is not only changing in Europe but also changing globally that the acceptance of different materials is now higher. Also, the word ‘premium’ is now more about what is ‘premium’ for you as an individual?
“It’s not just about having leather as the option but the customer saying ‘I like to sit on soft fabrics.’ And that’s one big change we have seen – that materials are becoming more personal choices.”
A huge growth in the preference for meat-free diets and the understanding of animal welfare has also affected designers’ choices of cabin materials, Verdenberk says. “Vegan is one of these touchpoint words. Before it was called artificial leather, and now it has become a material that is much more widely accepted because it has another meaning for people. It has a ‘conscience’ meaning, it has a different expression of personality.
She says there are no new materials, just existing materials that can be used in different ways.
“Plastics, for example, have advanced amazingly with different types and processes being used.”
Consumers also are displaying increased awareness of the ecological need to use materials from sustainable sources.
Verdenberk highlights the increased use of 3D printing as a possible way to reduce waste in production processes. “In line with sustainability, one interesting technology for me is 3D printing because it has less waste when using plastics because you don’t cut, you have only exactly what you need for the job.
She says Ford of Europe is working with its suppliers to consider how it can change and even simplify processes because less processing means less waste. It also provides a better sustainable story to create, she says, possibly even better products than in the past.