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Will your next car have a vegan interior?

Smarter options for car upholstery move into the mainstream.

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CNET

Charlie W. from Minnetonka, MN writes: 

"I read that the Porsche Taycan will come with a vegan interior. And Tesla is going that way, too. What's the point? I hadn't planned on eating my car."

While we typically associate "vegan" with a diet, the broader idea is to not use anything made from animals, and the main animal part in a car (and a large one in both size and cost) is the leather upholstery. As tech-forward premium car brands such as Mercedes, Tesla, Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover move to standard or optional nonanimal leathers, seats covered in hides are starting to seem antique.

Read: 10 essential kitchen tools for a vegan kitchen in 2019    

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At Mercedes this trend is nothing new. Shortly after WW II it offered artificial "Kunstleder" upholstery on cars like this 180 Ponton with a snazzy red cabin as the company returned to car manufacturing in a resource-strapped environment. Today the descendant of that material is known as MB-Tex and is found on many Mercedes cars. Cartelligent says 55% of the Mercedes vehicles it leases are chosen with MB-Tex.

Mercedes MB-Tex

Mercedes MB-Tex may be the grandparent of today's explosion in vegan auto interiors. Its supple texture, deep grain and genuine stitching all explain why so many of this company's premium cars are ordered this way.

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Unless you're seeking the smell of leather (which, like "new car smell", is really just the smell of processing chemicals), MB-Tex will probably meet or exceed your expectations for a "leather" interior. Its been one of my favorite auto upholsteries for years, and suffers much less from the scalding in the summer/freezing in the winter experience you can get with animal leather.  

Lexus probed the vegan trend early, making a few bespoke vegan Lexus models in 2006 at the request of Paul McCartney, whose tour it was sponsoring. But it would be over a decade later before the industry found interest among a wider base of car buyers, particularly affluent ones.

Tesla has been quietly dropping leather from its upholstery options, with the Model 3 and the coming Model Y already vegan only. Volvo's Polestar 2 comes standard with vegan upholstery and recycled wood, though leather will still be an option. The 2020 Range Rover Evoque, Velar and Jaguar I-Pace SUVs will all offer vegan interiors.  And the entire Toyota Prius line offers Sof-Tex synthetic leather or synthetic cloth upholstery to compliment its sustainable credentials. 

tesla model 3 interior

The Tesla Model 3 is a trailblazer in the move toward vegan car interiors. Leather is not an option, even on the steering wheel which was the hardest part to switch over.

Tesla

And, as Charlie mentioned, the Porsche Taycan will offer a microfiber vegan upholstery called "Race-Tex" that presents as leather but which they proudly tout as using recycled polyester and generating 80 percent less CO2 in its production. And that is where we find the first key to why some carmakers are going vegan: They are under huge pressure, especially in the EU, to lower the carbon footprint of their products and it doesn't all come from tailpipes.

Global animal agriculture, including leather production, create more CO2 than cars (though that's the reverse in the US because we have some many cars per capita). 

Leather creates a long and nasty chain of CO2 emissions and chemical waste. Averting that with a cleaner material would merely be altruistic on the part of carmakers but for an interesting provision in the EU's transport regulations that gives them credit for reducing CO2 emissions through so-called "eco-innovations" that can't be measured as part of road tests.

Add to that three more benefits of non-leather "leather" upholstery that automakers frequently cite: 

  • It's lighter in weight, which is a huge factor in all aspects of auto design. 
  • There's a lower cost of production, as many of these materials are made from low cost or recycled fibers. 
  • The better use and reuse cycle allows them to hit product dismantling goals.

I've long been a big fan of these new car upholstery choices and think they have a significant chance of unseating leather's dominance as the perceived premium choice, a perception that may be driven by inertia and not rationale.