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Asahi Kasei Survey: Easy-to-Maintain, Sustainable Materials in Demand for Automotive Interiors

image courtesy of Alamy/B Christopher BMW electric car interior
Interior design is expected to become a primary factor in car-purchasing decisions as electric vehicles grow in market share.

In November 2021, Japanese materials supplier Asahi Kasei conducted its third Automotive Interior Survey together with Cologne, Germany–based market research institute SKOPOS in the four major automotive markets: United States, Germany, China, and Japan. One thousand car users of varying income levels in each market responded to questions regarding their car purchasing behavior, understanding of automotive sustainability, and preferences for the automotive interior.

While fuel/power consumption, drive-train technology, running costs, and driving performance remain the dominant decision factors, interior design has been gaining importance in recent years. One out of every two car users in the four main markets will take interior design into account for their next car purchase. With growing electrification and automation, it is expected that the interior will become the main differentiating factor in upcoming years, and its importance in the car purchasing process will further increase. A key finding of the first survey from 2019 showed that car users worldwide highly value cleanliness inside their car. In 2021, this also proved the case, with 64% of car users in Germany placing an emphasis on the cleanliness of their car, trumping intuitive operation (38%), and personalization (46%). A similar trend was seen in China (78%), Japan (72%), and the United States (62%).

Benefits of easy-to-maintain surfaces

Whether it is a dirty floor, stains and scratches on interior surfaces, or odor, the general understanding of cleanliness differs among regions. While car users in China are clearly annoyed by “unpleasant odors” (48%) and the so-called “new car smell” (23%), the share of car users annoyed by these factors is significantly lower in the other regions. By contrast, “scratches on visible surfaces” bother one out of every four car users in Germany (25%). This share has further increased compared to 2020 (21%). The same can be observed in the United States, with 29% of car users annoyed by scratches (it was 19% in 2020).

Image courtesy of Asahi Kaseisustainable vehicle survey

“Stains on fabrics” annoy 30% of car users in Germany (2020: 26%) and 32% in the United States (2020: 26%). A major share in all regions sees benefits in “water- and dirt-repellent surfaces,” with 74% in China, 70% in the United States, 65% in Japan, and 63% in Germany saying so. “Surface and seating materials that are easy to wash” also are held in high regard, especially in the United States (81%) and China (80%).

Heiko Rother, General Manager, Business Development Automotive at Asahi Kasei Europe, commented: “Cleanliness was highly valued by car users even before the pandemic. The last two years have further fueled this desire, and the definition of ‘cleanliness’ has broadened.”

Mike Franchy, Director of North American Mobility at Asahi Kasei America, continued: “With the cost of vehicles increasing, consumers keep their vehicles longer and want surfaces that are highly durable, easy to clean, and continue to look new over time. In addition, with our Healthy Car portfolio of antimicrobial textiles and plastics, along with technology to ensure interior air quality, we have solutions for OEMs to address these needs of the market.”

Changing perceptions of sustainability

The findings of the survey show that the concept of sustainability is no longer only defined by the drive-train technology, but also by the choice of materials. For example, roughly half of car users in Germany, China, and the United States characterize a sustainable car based on “materials made from highly recyclables.” By contrast, car users in Japan prioritized hybrid drive trains above recyclables when characterizing sustainable automobiles.

This growing awareness of sustainability in automobiles is also reflected in the car user’s willingness to spend more money on a sustainable vehicle. In China, two out of three car users would pay more, in the United States and Japan every third user, and in Germany every fourth. Rother concluded: “The definition and the perception of sustainability in automobiles is changing. Car users are looking more at the materials being used – electrification alone is not enough anymore. More-sustainable interior surface materials that are also good-looking, durable, easy-to-maintain, and clean will get more attention from car users. In the end, ‘long-lasting’ material quality is being recognized as more sustainable.”

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