DETROIT - North American suppliers of vehicle interior systems dismiss it as a threat, but natural-fiber material is slowly gaining ground in US automaking.
The difference is fundamentally a Europe vs. North America issue.
North American suppliers of interior door panels, sun visors, overhead panels and instrument panels and dashboards typically use thermoplastics to make the core of their products.
European suppliers often use wood-fiber materials to make the component's structure.
But at least two recent North American contracts have embraced wood-fiber-based interior components.
The door panels of the Mercedes-Benz M-class sport-utility are natural-fiber-based. In addition, the Mexican-built Volkswagen Golf and Jetta use wood-fiber components.
'It's an environmental issue, but it's also a cost issue,' said Michael Greeby, industry manager for GE Plastics' Automotive Commercial Development Center in Southfield, Michigan. He spoke at the SAE International Congress and Exposition last month in Detroit.
GE deals exclusively in thermoplastics, and Greeby believes thermoplastics have clear advantages over natural fiber in interior component projects. He believes the market share of wood-fiber products will remain at less than 1 percent in the USA.
The main reason: Major US suppliers have invested in thermoplastic production, not natural-fiber products.
But US market penetration of wood-fiber-based panels may depend on the growth of imports. Supporters of natural-fiber material point out that European automakers - and European consumers - are pushing environmental issues harder than their American counterparts. And that points the way toward natural-fiber materials, which are recyclable.
As a result, European automakers may fit more vehicles exported to the USA with natural-fiber panels.
The Audi A6 and the BMW 5 series have wood-fiber panels.