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Title:
FUNCTIONAL LEATHER COMPONENT AND METHOD OF MAKING THE SAME
Document Type and Number:
WIPO Patent Application WO/2019/213209
Kind Code:
A1
Abstract:
A functional vehicle component and related methods include a functional leather assembly fixed over a vehicle component. The functional leather assembly includes a leather sheet, a flexible electronic circuit arranged on a first surface of the leather sheet that faces away from the vehicle component, and a pigmented coating arranged over the circuit. The circuit optionally includes one or more electronic components, such as a piezoelectric switch that can be actuated to make or break a conductive path in the circuit. The piezoelectric switch provides a haptic signal that indicates the actuation of the piezoelectric switch. The entire functional leather assembly, including the circuit, may be embossed to provide an embossed pattern to an exposed surface of the functional leather assembly.

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Inventors:
SCOTT, Patricia A. (LLC21001 State Route 73, Raymond OH, 43067, US)
ALI, Zainab I. (LLC21001 State Route 73, Raymond OH, 43067, US)
Application Number:
US2019/030130
Publication Date:
November 07, 2019
Filing Date:
May 01, 2019
Export Citation:
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Assignee:
HONDA MOTOR CO., LTD. (1-1 Minami-Aoyama, 2-chomeMinato-k, Tokyo ., 107-8556, JP)
SCOTT, Patricia A. (LLC21001 State Route 73, Raymond OH, 43067, US)
ALI, Zainab I. (LLC21001 State Route 73, Raymond OH, 43067, US)
International Classes:
B60N2/00; B60Q3/80; B60R16/02
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
OVERBERGER, Erik J. (Rankin Hill & Clark LLP, 23755 Lorain Road Suite 20, North Olmsted OH, 44070, US)
Download PDF:
Claims:
CLAIMS:

1 . A method of producing a functional leather component, comprising: providing a leather sheet; and

applying to a first surface of the leather sheet, a flexible electronic circuit including a piezoelectric switch that can be actuated to make or break a conductive path in the circuit;

wherein when the switch is actuated to make or break the conductive path in the circuit, the piezoelectric switch provides haptic feedback that the piezoelectric switch has been actuated.

2. The method according to claim 1 , wherein the piezoelectric switch is applied to the first surface of the leather sheet by printing a piezoelectric material on the first surface of the leather sheet.

3. The method according to claim 1 , further comprising embossing the first surface of the leather sheet that includes the flexible electronic circuit to thereby impart an embossed pattern to the first surface.

4. The method according to claim 3, wherein embossing includes passing the leather sheet and the flexible electronic circuit through a roll-to-roll embosser.

5. The method according to claim 1 , wherein:

the method further comprises arranging a pigmented coating over the circuit; and

the first surface is the grain side of the leather sheet.

6. The method according to claim 5, further comprising:

providing a light source that emits light when electrical power is supplied to the light source, and

electrically connecting the light source to the circuit,

wherein the pigmented coating is arranged over the light source, wherein light emitted by the light source is visible through the pigmented coating,

wherein the light source comprises a micro light emitting diode, and

wherein the light source is configured to emit light that indicates a location of the piezoelectric switch.

7. The method according to claim 5, further comprising applying an acrylic urethane anti-soiling component over the first surface of the leather sheet, wherein the anti-soiling component is included a) as part of the pigmented coating, or b) as a top coat over the pigmented coating.

8. The method according to claim 1 , further comprising fixing the leather sheet over a surface of a vehicle component, wherein during fixing, the circuit conforms to contours of the surface of the vehicle component.

9. The method according to claim 8, wherein the vehicle component is selected from the group consisting of a steering wheel, a seat, an arm rest, a center console, a dashboard, an interior panel, a door, a gear shifter, and combinations thereof.

10. A functional component comprising a component covered by a functional leather assembly, wherein:

the functional leather assembly includes:

a leather sheet covering the component; and

a flexible electronic circuit arranged on an outermost surface of the leather sheet that faces away from the component, the flexible electronic circuit including a piezoelectric switch that can be actuated to make or break a conductive path in the circuit; and upon actuation of the piezoelectric switch to make or break the conductive path in the circuit, the piezoelectric switch provides a haptic signal that indicates the actuation of the piezoelectric switch.

1 1 . The functional component according to claim 10, wherein the piezoelectric switch includes a printed piezoelectric material arranged between two conductive layers.

12. The functional component according to claim 10, wherein the functional leather assembly includes an embossed pattern over the outermost surface of the leather sheet and over the flexible electronic circuit.

13. The functional component according to claim 10, wherein the circuit further includes a light source.

14. The functional component according to claim 13, wherein:

the light source comprises a micro light emitting diode; and

the light emitted by the light source indicates a location of the piezoelectric switch.

15. The functional component according to claim 10, further comprising a pigmented coating arranged over the circuit including the piezoelectric switch.

16. The functional component according to claim 15, wherein the functional leather assembly further includes an acrylic urethane anti-soiling component over the outermost surface of the leather sheet, wherein the anti-soiling component is included a) as part of the pigmented coating, or b) as a top coat over the pigmented coating.

17. The functional component according to claim 10, wherein:

the component is a vehicle component;

the functional leather assembly is fixed over a surface of the vehicle component, and

the circuit conforms to contours of the surface of the vehicle component.

18. The functional component according to claim 10, wherein the vehicle component is selected from the group consisting of a steering wheel, a seat, an arm rest, a center console, a dashboard, an interior panel, a door, a gear shifter, and combinations thereof

19. A method of producing a functional component, comprising:

applying to a first surface of a leather sheet, a flexible electronic circuit including a piezoelectric switch that is actuatable to make or break a conductive path in the circuit;

fixing the leather sheet over a surface of a component such that the first surface of the leather sheet is facing away from the component to thereby define an outermost surface of the leather sheet; and

connecting the circuit to an electronic control unit and a power source;

wherein upon actuation of the piezoelectric switch to make or break the conductive path in the circuit, the piezoelectric switch provides a haptic signal that indicates the actuation of the piezoelectric switch.

20. The method according to claim 19, wherein the method further comprises arranging a pigmented coating over the first surface of the leather sheet and over the flexible electronic circuit including the piezoelectric switch.

21 . The method according to claim 19, wherein the component is a vehicle component selected from the group consisting of a steering wheel, a seat, an arm rest, a center console, a dash board, interior panel, a door, a gear shifter, and combinations thereof

22. A method of producing an embossed functional leather assembly, comprising:

preparing a functional leather assembly including:

providing a leather substrate comprising a first surface and a second surface opposite from the first surface; and

applying an electrically conductive trace over the first surface of the leather substrate; and

embossing the first surface of the leather substrate to provide an embossed texture at the first surface.

23. The method according to claim 22, further comprising arranging a pigmented coating over the first surface of the leather substrate to thereby cover the trace,

wherein the pigmented coating includes:

a first coating applied at a thickness of 20-45 microns;

a second coating applied at a thickness of 5-20 micron; and a third coating applied at a thickness of 15-60 microns thick.

24. The method according to claim 23, wherein:

preparing the functional leather assembly further includes electrically connecting an electronic component to the trace,

the electronic component is covered by the pigmented coating, and

the trace and the electronic component are camouflaged by the pigmented coating.

25. The method according to claim 24, wherein:

the electronic component includes a light source, and

when the light source is activated, light emitted by the light source is visible through the pigmented coating.

26. The method according to claim 25, wherein the light source includes a light emitting diode.

27. The method according to claim 26, wherein the embossed texture is produced by roll-to-roll heated embossment.

28. The method according to claim 23, wherein preparing the functional leather assembly further includes arranging an anti-soiling layer on the pigmented coating.

29. The method according to claim 22, further comprising electrically connecting a microcontroller to the trace.

30. The method according to claim 20, wherein the embossed texture includes a leather grain texture.

31 . A method of producing a functional vehicle component, comprising: preparing a functional leather assembly including applying an electronic circuit, including an electrically conductive trace, to a first surface of a leather substrate; embossing the functional leather assembly to provide an embossed texture at the first surface of the leather substrate; and

arranging the embossed functional leather assembly to cover a surface of a vehicle component such that the first surface of the leather substrate faces away from the vehicle component.

32. The method according to claim 31 , further comprising arranging a pigmented coating on the first surface of the leather substrate to thereby cover the circuit; and optionally applying an anti-soiling layer on the pigmented coating;

wherein the circuit includes a plurality of electronic components including a light emitting diode.

33. The method according to claim 31 , wherein the embossed texture comprises a leather grain texture that is produced by roll-to-roll heated embossment.

34. The method according to claim 31 , further comprising electrically connecting a microcontroller to the circuit.

35. A functional vehicle component comprising a functional leather assembly, the functional leather assembly including:

a leather substrate comprising a first surface and a second surface opposite from the first surface; and

an electrically conductive trace arranged on the first surface of the leather substrate;

wherein the functional leather assembly is embossed with an embossed texture at the first surface of the leather substrate.

36. The functional vehicle component according to claim 35, further comprising a pigmented coating on the first surface of the leather substrate and covering the trace;

wherein the pigmented coating includes:

a first coating applied at a thickness of 20-45 microns;

a second coating applied at a thickness of 5-20 micron; and a third coating applied at a thickness of 15-60 microns thick.

37. The functional vehicle component according to claim 36, wherein:

the functional leather assembly further includes an electronic component electrically connected to the trace and covered by the pigmented coating; and

the conductive trace and the electronic component are camouflaged by the pigmented coating.

38. The functional vehicle component according to claim 37, wherein:

the electronic components include a light source, and

when the light source is activated, light emitted by the light source is visible through the pigmented coating.

39. The functional vehicle component according to claim 35, further comprising a vehicle component including a surface, wherein:

the functional leather assembly is arranged on the surface of the vehicle component; and

the vehicle component comprises an interior panel, a seat, or a steering wheel.

40. The functional vehicle component according to claim 36, wherein the functional leather assembly further includes an anti-soiling layer arranged on the pigmented coating.

41. The functional vehicle component according to claim 35, wherein the embossed texture includes a leather grain texture.

Description:
FUNCTIONAL LEATHER COMPONENT AND METHOD OF MAKING THE SAME

BACKGROUND

[0001] Interior vehicle components often include a surface layer of premium natural leather. The leather is wrapped around and secured to an underlying structure. The leather is pliable, and thus conforms to the contours of the underlying structure. In luxury vehicles, leather is generally applied as a top layer to components that may come in direct contact with occupants of the vehicle, such as interior panels, seats, and door linings. The main function of the topcoat of leather is for aesthetics and to provide a luxurious look to the interior of the vehicle. However, natural leather offers no functionality to the vehicle components. Accordingly, there is a need for an improved top layer for vehicle components.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION

[0002] According to one aspect, a method of producing a functional leather component includes providing a leather sheet, applying a flexible electronic circuit to an A-surface of the leather sheet, and arranging a pigmented coating over the circuit.

[0003] According to another aspect, a method of producing a vehicle system includes applying a flexible electronic circuit to an A-surface of a leather sheet, electrically connecting a light source to the circuit, the light source configured to emit light when supplied with electrical power, arranging a pigmented coating over the circuit and over the light source, fixing the leather sheet over a surface of a vehicle component such that the A-surface of the leather sheet is facing away from the vehicle component, and connecting the circuit to a vehicle electronic control unit and a vehicle power source. Optionally, the pigmented coating inhibits or prevents the circuit and the light source from being visible through the pigmented coating. Light emitted by the light source is visible through the pigmented coating.

[0004] According to another aspect, a functional vehicle component includes a vehicle component, a leather sheet fixed over a surface of the vehicle component, a flexible electronic circuit contacting an A-surface of the leather sheet and including a printed and cured conductive ink, and a pigmented coating arranged over the electronic circuit.

[0005] According to another aspect, a vehicle system includes a vehicle power system and an electronic control unit electrically connected to the vehicle power system. The vehicle system also includes a functional vehicle component including a vehicle component, a leather sheet fixed over a surface of the vehicle component, a flexible electronic circuit contacting an A-surface of the leather sheet and including a printed and cured conductive ink, and a pigmented coating arranged over the electronic circuit. The circuit is electrically connected to the electronic control unit, which is configured to control operation of the functional vehicle component.

[0006] According to another aspect, a wireless charger for a vehicle includes a vehicle power source; and a wireless charging apparatus including a vehicle component, a leather sheet fixed over a surface of the vehicle component, a flexible electronic circuit contacting an A-surface of the leather sheet and including a printed and cured conductive ink, and a pigmented coating arranged over the circuit. The circuit is electrically connected to the power source and includes a wireless transmitter configured to generate an oscillating electromagnetic field when supplied with power from the power source.

[0007] According to another aspect, a smart functional vehicle component includes a vehicle component, a leather sheet fixed over a surface of the vehicle component, a flexible electronic circuit contacting an A-surface of the leather sheet and including a printed and cured conductive ink, a light source that emits light when electrical power is supplied to the light source, the light source being electrically connected to the circuit, and a pigmented coating arranged over the electronic circuit and over the light source.

[0008] According to another aspect, a vehicle system includes a vehicle power system; an electronic control unit electrically connected to the vehicle power system; and a smart functional vehicle component including a vehicle component, a leather sheet fixed over a surface of the vehicle component, a flexible electronic circuit contacting an A-surface of the leather sheet including a printed and cured conductive ink that is in electrical communication with the electronic control unit, a micro light emitting diode that emits light when electrical power is supplied to the micro light emitting diode from the vehicle power system, the micro light emitting diode being electrically connected to the circuit, and a pigmented coating arranged over the electronic circuit and over the micro light emitting diode. The electronic control unit is configured to control operation of the functional vehicle component.

[0009] According to another aspect, a smart functional vehicle steering wheel includes a vehicle steering wheel, a leather sheet fixed over a surface of the steering wheel, a flexible electronic circuit contacting an A-surface of the leather sheet and including a printed and cured conductive ink, and a pigmented coating arranged over the electronic circuit. The circuit extends around the entire circumference of the steering wheel and includes one or more pressure sensors arranged around the entire circumference of the steering wheel.

[0010] According to another aspect, a method of producing a functional leather component comprises providing a leather sheet; and applying to a first surface of the leather sheet, a flexible electronic circuit including a piezoelectric switch that can be actuated to make or break a conductive path in the circuit. When the switch is actuated to make or break the conductive path in the circuit, the piezoelectric switch provides haptic feedback that the piezoelectric switch has been actuated.

[0011] According to another aspect, a method of producing a functional leather component comprises providing a leather sheet; applying to a first surface of the leather sheet, a flexible electronic circuit including a piezoelectric switch that can be actuated to make or break a conductive path in the circuit; and arranging a pigmented coating over the circuit. When the switch is actuated to make or break the conductive path in the circuit, the piezoelectric switch provides haptic feedback that the piezoelectric switch has been actuated.

[0012] According to another aspect, a functional vehicle component comprises a vehicle component covered by a functional leather assembly. The functional leather assembly includes a leather sheet covering the vehicle component; and a flexible electronic circuit arranged on an outermost surface of the leather sheet that faces away from the vehicle component. The flexible electronic circuit includes a piezoelectric switch that can be actuated to make or break a conductive path in the circuit. Upon actuation of the piezoelectric switch to make or break the conductive path in the circuit, the piezoelectric switch provides a haptic signal that indicates the actuation of the piezoelectric switch.

[0013] According to another aspect, a functional vehicle component comprises a vehicle component covered by a functional leather assembly. The functional leather assembly includes a leather sheet covering the vehicle component; a flexible electronic circuit arranged on an outermost surface of the leather sheet that faces away from the vehicle component; and a pigmented coating arranged over the circuit. The flexible electronic circuit includes a piezoelectric switch that can be actuated to make or break a conductive path in the circuit. Upon actuation of the piezoelectric switch to make or break the conductive path in the circuit, the piezoelectric switch provides a haptic signal that indicates the actuation of the piezoelectric switch.

[0014] According to another aspect, a method of producing a functional vehicle component, comprises applying to a first surface of a leather sheet, a flexible electronic circuit including a piezoelectric switch that is actuatable to make or break a conductive path in the circuit; arranging a pigmented coating over the first surface of the leather sheet and over the flexible electronic circuit including the piezoelectric switch; fixing the leather sheet over a surface of a vehicle component such that the first surface of the leather sheet is facing away from the vehicle component to thereby define an outermost surface of the leather sheet; and connecting the circuit to a vehicle electronic control unit and a vehicle power source. Upon actuation of the piezoelectric switch to make or break the conductive path in the circuit, the piezoelectric switch provides a haptic signal that indicates the actuation of the piezoelectric switch. Optionally, the pigmented coating inhibits or prevents the circuit including the piezoelectric switch from being visible through the pigmented coating.

[0015] According to another aspect, a method of producing a functional vehicle component, comprises applying to a first surface of a leather sheet, a flexible electronic circuit including a piezoelectric switch that is actuatable to make or break a conductive path in the circuit; fixing the leather sheet over a surface of a vehicle component such that the first surface of the leather sheet is facing away from the vehicle component to thereby define an outermost surface of the leather sheet; and connecting the circuit to a vehicle electronic control unit and a vehicle power source. Upon actuation of the piezoelectric switch to make or break the conductive path in the circuit, the piezoelectric switch provides a haptic signal that indicates the actuation of the piezoelectric switch.

[0016] According to one aspect, a method of producing an embossed functional leather assembly includes preparing a functional leather assembly, which includes providing a leather substrate including a first surface and a second surface opposite from the first surface; and applying a flexible conductive trace over the first surface of the leather substrate. The functional leather assembly is embossed to provide an embossed texture at the first surface of the functional leather substrate.

[0017] According to another aspect, a method of producing an embossed functional leather assembly includes providing a leather substrate including a first surface and a second surface opposite from the first surface; arranging a pigmented coating on the first surface of the leather substrate; applying a flexible conductive trace over the pigmented coating on the first surface of the leather substrate; optionally applying a topcoat over the flexible conductive trace; and embossing the resulting assembly to provide an embossed texture at the first surface of the functional leather substrate.

[0018] According to another aspect, a method of producing an embossed functional leather assembly includes preparing a functional leather assembly, which includes providing a leather substrate including a first surface and a second surface opposite from the first surface; applying a flexible conductive trace over the first surface of the leather substrate; and arranging a pigmented coating on the first surface of the leather substrate to thereby cover the trace. The functional leather assembly is embossed to provide an embossed texture at the first surface of the functional leather substrate.

[0019] According to another aspect, method of producing a functional vehicle component includes preparing a functional leather assembly by applying an electronic circuit, including a flexible conductive trace, to a first surface of a leather substrate. The functional leather assembly is embossed to provide an embossed texture at the first surface of the functional leather substrate, and the functional leather assembly is arranged to cover a surface of a vehicle component such that the first surface of the leather substrate faces away from the vehicle component.

[0020] According to another aspect, method of producing a functional vehicle component includes preparing a functional leather assembly by applying an electronic circuit, including a flexible conductive trace, to a first surface of a leather substrate; arranging a pigmented coating on the first surface of the leather substrate to thereby cover the circuit; and applying an anti-soiling layer to the pigmented coating. The functional leather assembly is embossed to provide an embossed texture at the first surface of the functional leather substrate, and the functional leather assembly is arranged to cover a surface of a vehicle component such that the first surface of the leather substrate faces away from the vehicle component.

[0021] According to another aspect, a functional vehicle component comprises a functional leather assembly. The functional leather assembly includes a leather substrate including a first surface and a second surface opposite from the first surface, and a flexible electrically conductive trace arranged on the first surface of the leather substrate. The functional leather assembly is embossed with an embossed texture at the first surface of the leather substrate.

[0022] According to another aspect, a functional vehicle component comprises a functional leather assembly. The functional leather assembly includes a leather substrate including a first surface and a second surface opposite from the first surface, a flexible electrically conductive trace arranged on the first surface of the leather substrate, and a pigmented coating on the first surface of the leather substrate and covering the trace. The functional leather assembly is embossed with an embossed texture at the first surface of the leather substrate.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

[0023] FIG. 1 is a partially exploded schematic view of a portion of a smart functional vehicle component in accordance with the present subject matter.

[0024] FIG. 2 is a perspective view of a use of a smart functional vehicle component in accordance with the present subject matter. [0025] FIG. 3 is a perspective view of another smart functional vehicle component in accordance with the present subject matter.

[0026] FIG. 4 is a front view of another smart functional vehicle component in accordance with the present subject matter.

[0027] FIG. 5 is a front view of another smart functional vehicle component in accordance with the present subject matter.

[0028] FIG. 6 is a side view of another smart functional vehicle component in accordance with the present subject matter.

[0029] FIG. 7 is a schematic view a smart functional leather assembly being embossed according to the present subject matter.

[0030] FIG. 8 is a method of preparing an embossed smart functional leather assembly according to the present subject matter.

[0031] FIG. 9 is a method of preparing a smart functional leather assembly according to the present subject matter according to the present subject matter.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION

[0032] In the era of smart phones and research toward autonomous vehicles, there is a need for creating smart functional interior vehicle components having real-time bio feedback loops and dynamic surfaces. Smart functional vehicle components can be used to make a driver’s and passenger’s driving experience more comfortable and enjoyable as compared to non-functional vehicle components.

[0033] The present subject matter provides a smart functional leather assembly that is flexible and therefore can be wrapped over various vehicle components to make the vehicle components smart and functional. The leather assembly can be arranged on an interior or exterior of a vehicle. The outermost surface of the leather assembly presents a smooth and clean finish, and therefore has an uncluttered appearance despite having a smart functional capacity.

[0034] The present subject matter includes a substrate, for example a natural substrate such as leather sheet, textiles, etc., and includes making the substrate conductive, smart, and functional without cluttering the appearance of the substrate by including visible buttons, sensors, or other functional or smart elements on an A- surface of the substrate. The present subject matter may provide a dynamic interior experience for occupants of a vehicle, yet provide a functional vehicle component that has an uncluttered appearance. The present subject matter includes a smart functional leather assembly, and a method of making a leather sheet to be smart and functional, as opposed to being used for only aesthetic purposes, without cluttering the appearance of the leather sheet. For this purpose, the smart functional leather assembly may include electronic elements including for example, traces, switches (e.g. actuator buttons), sensors, or other functional or smart elements on an A-surface of the leather sheet. When used in an interior of a vehicle, the functional leather assembly can provide a dynamic interior experience for occupants of a vehicle, yet provide a smart functional vehicle component that has an uncluttered appearance.

[0035] Referring now to the figures, wherein the showings are for purposes of illustrating one or more embodiments only and not for purposes of limiting the same, Fig. 1 depicts a smart functional leather assembly 2 (also referred to herein as “functional leather 2” or“leather assembly 2”). As depicted, the functional leather assembly 2 includes a leather sheet 4, a flexible electronic circuit layer 6, a pigmented coating 8, and an optional anti-soiling component layer 10. In another embodiment, a smart functional vehicle component 12 includes the smart functional leather assembly 2 arranged on a vehicle component 16.

[0036] The smart functional vehicle component 12 includes the leather sheet 4 fixed over a top surface 14 of the vehicle component 16, the flexible electronic circuit layer 6 applied to an A-surface 18 (also referred to herein as the“first surface”) of the leather sheet 4, and a pigmented coating 8 over the circuit layer 6. As used herein, “A-surface 18” refers to the outermost surface of the leather sheet 4 that is facing the vehicle occupants after the functional vehicle component 12 including the leather assembly 2 is assembled and arranged in/on a vehicle; while a B-surface, a C-surface, a D-surface, etc. are other surfaces of the leather sheet 4 that are facing more away from the occupants compared to the A-surface 18. On a functional vehicle component 1212 in an interior of a vehicle, the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4 is facing the vehicle occupants, and unless covered by another layer or feature, such as the pigmented coating 8, may be visible to the occupants of the vehicle. The A-surface 18 may be what is referred to in the leather industry as the grain side, the skin side, the top side, or the hair side of the leather sheet 4. The grain side, the skin side, the top side, or the hair side is the side of the leather sheet 4 opposite from what is referred to in the leather industry as the flesh side or back side 20 (e.g. B-surface, also referred to herein as“second surface”) of the leather sheet 4. The flesh side is the side of the leather sheet 4 that is connected to the meat of the animal from which the leather sheet 4 is taken.

[0037] The functional leather assembly 2 optionally includes an anti-soiling component layer 10. However, in an alternative embodiment, the functional leather assembly 2 may not include a separate and distinct anti-soiling component layer 10, and instead can include an anti-soiling component as part of the pigmented coating 8.

[0038] The vehicle component 16 is not particularly limited by the present subject matter, and may include any interior vehicle component such as an interior panel, a door, a seat, a steering wheel, an arm rest, a dashboard, a center console, a gear shifter or any other interior component that can be wrapped with leather. Optionally, the vehicle component 16 can include an exterior vehicle component. The vehicle component 16 is different from the smart functional vehicle component 12, in that the vehicle component 16 does not include the smart functional leather assembly 2 applied over its top surface 14 or A-surface. In one non-limiting embodiment, the vehicle component 16, before assembling with the functional leather assembly 2, does not include any smart or functional elements or features such as sensors, processors, circuits, switches, or the like. However, it will be understood that the vehicle component 16 may include smart or functional elements aside from those included on the smart functional leather assembly 2.

[0039] The top surface 14 of the vehicle component 16 may be smooth or textured, and flat or contoured. In one non-limiting example, the surface 14 of the vehicle component 16 is contoured. In any event, the functional leather assembly 2 is fixed over the surface 14 of a vehicle component 16 in order to make the vehicle component 16 smart and functional.

[0040] The leather sheet 4 may be fixed over the top surface 14 of the vehicle component 16 in order to enhance the aesthetics of the vehicle component 16. The leather sheet 4 may be naturally flexible, pliable, and stretchable, and therefore can be wrapped around or over the vehicle component 16 and conforms to the contours of the surface 14 of the vehicle component 16. Because the circuit layer 6 and circuits 22 are flexible and are applied to the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4, the circuit layer 6 and circuits 22 are also conformed to the contours of the surface 14 of the vehicle component 16. The leather sheet 4 may be in direct contact with the surface 14 of the vehicle component 16, or may have one or more optional layers therebetween. Optionally, the leather sheet 4 may simply cover or be over the surface 14 of the vehicle component 16.

[0041] The leather sheet 4 may be prepared in any number of ways including by regular tanning processes. The leather sheet 4 may be processed from natural animal hide, or may include composite leather (e.g. bonded leather) or synthetic leather products. When natural animal hide is used as the leather sheet 4, the animal hide may be subject to a leather preparation processes including one or more of tanning, soaking, sammying, shaving, fleshing/splitting, drying, staking, and milling. Then, after application of a base coat, the hide may be cut into a desired shape for a particular application, for example to cover a seat, interior panel, steering wheel, or other vehicle component 16 in a vehicle to form the smart functional vehicle component 12. The leather sheet 4 may be replaced or supplemented with bonded leather, synthetic leather, other leather composite material, or other material or layers as desired. The leather sheet 4 may be cut or formed to a particular size or shape to correspond to the shape and size of the vehicle component 16 to which it will be wrapped. In accordance with the present subject matter, the leather sheet 4 may have a shape and size that is configured to wrap over the surface 14 of the component 16, e.g. an interior panel, a door, a seat, a steering wheel, a dashboard, a center console, or a gear shifter.

[0042] After the leather sheet 4 is prepared as desired, and either before or after fixing the leather sheet 4 over the surface 14 of the vehicle component 16, the various other layers (i.e. circuit layer 6, pigmented coating 8, and optional anti-soiling component layer 10) of the functional leather assembly 2 may be applied to the leather sheet 4. In one embodiment, the leather sheet 4 is fixed over the surface 14 of the vehicle component 16 after the various other layers of the functional leather assembly 2 are applied to the leather sheet 4. In another embodiment, the leather sheet 4 is fixed over the surface 14 of the vehicle component 16 before the various other layers of the functional leather assembly 2 are applied to the leather sheet 4.

[0043] The leather sheet 4 may be flexible, and therefore in one non-limiting embodiment, may be fixed over the surface 14 of the vehicle component 16 by stretching and wrapping the leather sheet 4 around the vehicle component 16. The leather sheet 4 may be fixed, such as by adhesive or fasteners, to the surface 14 and/or other portion of the vehicle component 16.

[0044] In one embodiment, the circuit layer 6, pigmented coating 8, and optional anti-soiling component layer 10, even though they are applied over the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4, still allow some characteristics (e.g. surface texture or grain, and softness) of the leather sheet 4 to be at least partially perceived by occupants of the vehicle, such as by touch or sight.

[0045] The circuit layer 6 is flexible, and is provided over the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4, optionally in direct contact with the A-surface 18 or having one or more intervening layers arranged therebetween, and in order to provide smart functional characteristics to the leather sheet 4. The circuit layer 6 may include one or more flexible electronic circuits 22 (also referred to herein as“electronic circuits” or “circuits”), and is arranged on the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4. Although the circuit layer 6 is depicted in Fig. 1 as being a continuous layer, this is only for convenience in order to show the arrangement of the various layers of the smart functional vehicle component 12, and it will be understood that the circuit layer 6 may or may not comprise voids between conductive traces 23 of the one or more circuits 22, and therefore the circuit layer 6 may or may not be a continuous layer as depicted. The traces 23 (also referred to herein as“conductive traces”,“conductive paths” or “traces”) may be applied directly to the leather sheet 4 and therefore include one or more voids between the traces 23 and the one or more optional electronic elements of the circuit 22. However, the circuit layer 6 may be a continuous layer as depicted, such as for example, the circuit 22 may be formed on a surface of a film, and the film carrying the circuit 22 may be applied directly to the leather sheet 4. [0046] In one embodiment, the circuit layer 6 contacts the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4. In another embodiment, the circuit layer 6 is arranged on a polymer film, which is then arranged over the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4. The one or more circuits 22 of the circuit layer 6 each include one or more flexible electrically conductive traces 23. By“flexible”, it is meant a layer, circuit, trace or other element or material that is not rigid, brittle, or stiff, and instead bends, stretches, changes shape, or otherwise yields to external forces, yet does not break or lose functionality when subject to such external forces. When referring to a“flexible electronic circuit”, it is meant an electronic circuit 22 that does not break and retains its conductivity even when bent, stretched, twisted or otherwise deformed to a strain of 10% to at least 20%. In one embodiment, the circuit 22 and traces 23 do not break when so deformed.

[0047] In one embodiment, the circuit layer 6 includes only one electronic circuit 22. In another embodiment, the circuit layer 6 includes more than one electronic circuit 22, for example, two, three or more electronic circuits 22. When more than one circuit 22 is included in the circuit layer 6, each individual circuit 22 may be configured to perform a different function than the other circuits 22, which may mean that each circuit 22 is electrically isolated/separated from the other circuits 22, or the circuits 22 can be independently operated, or each circuit 22 can function separately from the other circuits 22, or the circuits 22 are electrically connected to different types of electronic elements.

[0048] The one or more circuits 22 (including one or more conductive traces 23) and the electronic elements may each be formed using an electrically conductive ink that includes a binder (e.g. polymer material such as polyimide) and conductive particles, including for example, copper, silver, carbon, silver chloride, or other electrically conductive particles. The one or more circuits 22 each may be formed by applying, e.g. printing, a conductive ink directly on the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4, followed by curing, drying, hardening, etc. of the conductive ink, to thereby form the conductive traces 23, circuits 22, and electronic elements of the circuit layer 6. In other words, the conductive traces 23, circuits 22, and electronic elements may be defined by or include a printed and cured conductive ink. Conductive inks that are suitable to create the one or more circuits 22 and electronic elements are not particularly limited, and may include for example, PE671 , PE773, PE873, and PE971 Stretchable Conductors, PE410 Ink-Jet Silver Conductor, 5021 , 5025, 5028, and 5064HY Ag Conductors, ME601 and ME602 Stretchable Silver Conductors, PE827 and PE828 Ultra-Low Temperature Cure Silver Composite Conductors, Kapton™ KA801 Polyimide Silver Conductor, available from E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company; and CI-1036, CI-4040, CI-2051 , and CI-1062 Stretchable Conductive Ink available from Engineered Materials Systems, Inc. (EMS).

[0049] These conductive inks can be applied on the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4 by any method including pad-printing, flexography, rotogravure, spraying, dipping, syringe dispensing, stenciling, screen printing, aerosol jet printing, or inkjet printing for example in order to create an electronic circuit. The flexible electronic circuits 22 can be formed using other materials or processes including etching, in- mold forming of the electronic circuits 22, selective photocuring, and circuit scribe, for example. In one illustrative embodiment, the one or more circuits 22 are formed by screen printing a conductive ink on the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4.

[0050] The one or more circuits 22 can each include electronic elements such as power sources, capacitors, inductors, diodes, resistors, transformers, switches, sensors, loads, light sources, fuses, antennas, wireless transmitters, heaters, etc., each of which may be flexible. However, it will be understood that these or other electronic elements may be included in electrical communication with the circuits 22, but arranged elsewhere other than as part of the circuit layer 6. In one non-limiting example, a light source 24 is included as an electronic element in the functional vehicle component 12. In another non-limiting example and as shown in Figs. 1 and 2, a wireless transmitter 30 (e.g. an induction coil, or a capacitive plate) is included as an electronic element in the functional vehicle component 12. In a further non-limiting example, one or more sensors 28 are included in an electronic circuit of the circuit layer 6. In still another non-limiting example, a switch 26 is included in an electronic circuit of the circuit layer 6.

[0051] The pigmented coating 8 may be arranged over the circuit layer 6 to at least partially conceal or camouflage the circuit layer 6 including the electronic elements. The pigmented coating 8 may arranged between the leather sheet 4 and the circuit layer 6. The pigmented coating 8 may be arranged directly in contact with the circuit layer 6 or may be arranged with one or more intervening layers therebetween. In an embodiment, the pigmented coating 8 is not included, or the pigmented coating 8 may be clear (i.e. optically transparent) and/or the circuit layer 6 and electronic elements thereof may be positioned on top of the pigmented coating 8. The pigmented coating 8 is not particularly limited by the present subject matter, and may include a translucent layer, film, or coating arranged over the flexible circuit layer 6. By “translucent” it is meant a material or layer that allows light to pass therethrough, but causes sufficient diffusion to prevent perception of distinct images through the material or layer. In an embodiment, the pigmented coating 8 is not included, or the pigmented coating 8 is clear (i.e. optically transparent) and/or the circuit layer 6 and electronic elements thereof are positioned on top of the pigmented coating 8. In a non-limiting example, the pigmented coating 8 produces sufficient diffusion of light such that visibility through the pigmented coating 8 of the flexible electronic circuit 22 and all the electronic elements of the circuit layer 6, except for light emitted by the light source 24, is inhibited by the pigmented coating 8. In one embodiment, the flexible electronic circuit 22 and all the electronic elements of the circuit layer 6 are not visible through the pigmented coating 8. The light source 24 is also under the pigmented coating 8, and therefore visibility of the light source 24 through the pigmented coating is optionally inhibited by the pigmented coating 8. In one embodiment, the light source 24 is also not visible through the pigmented coating 8. However, the pigmented coating 8 is sufficiently translucent (rather than being opaque) such that light emitted by the light source 24 is visible through the pigmented coating 8. Accordingly, the pigmented coating 8 at least in some measure conceals the flexible circuit layer 6 (including the light source 24) from view, yet allows light emitted from the light source 24 to be transmitted therethrough so that the emitted light is visible through the pigmented coating 8 and can be seen. Light emitted from the light source 24 that is transmitted through the pigmented coating 8 may be seen for example, by a vehicle occupant, and can be used for vehicle illumination or as visual indicators to convey information to a vehicle occupant. [0052] The pigmented coating 8 may include a polymer, textile, composite material, enamel, paper, glass, metal, ceramic, other material, and combinations thereof. In one non-limiting example, the pigmented coating 8 comprises a pigmented layer including for example a mixture of polymer and pigment particles. The polymer may be an acrylic urethane resin for example. The pigmented coating 8 may be formed by applying the polymer/pigment mixture as a liquid over the flexible circuit layer 6 and curing the polymer to produce the pigmented coating 8 as a solid. The pigmented coating 8 may have a pigment loading and/or thickness sufficient to inhibit or prevent the circuit 22 and the electronic elements including the light source 24 from being visible through the pigmented coating 8. However, the pigmented coating 8 is sufficiently translucent, as opposed to being opaque, such that light emitted by the light source 24 can be seen through the pigmented coating 8. In one non-limiting embodiment, the pigmented coating 8 has a thickness from 5-50 pm, 15-40 pm, or 20-30 pm. Other thicknesses can be used.

[0053] In one embodiment for example, the pigmented coating 8 includes a multi- layer structure including a 20-45 microns thick base color layer that is applied wet on the leather sheet 4 and dried at about 100°C for one minute; a 15-20 micron thick color coat is then applied wet and dried at 100°C for one minute; and then three layers of topcoat each at 5-20 microns thick (for a total of 15-60 microns thickness) are applied wet and then dried at 100°C for one minute. The base color layer, the color coat, and the topcoat layers may each be applied by spraying and each may comprise a polyurethane acrylic dispersion with pigment. The base color layer and color coat are included to provide abrasion resistance and color consistency. The topcoat is provided for haptics and color performance. The leather substrate may also be coated initially with a base coat of polyurethane and acrylic dispersion, applied by a roller, and included to provide adhesion to the leather sheet 4.

[0054] The anti-soiling component layer 10 or an anti-soiling component included in the pigmented coating 8, may present an exposed surface 32 of the functional vehicle component 12, and these are optionally included to resist the aggregation of soil, dirt, stains or other debris on the leather assembly 2, while maintaining all physical and aesthetical properties of the underlying layers of the leather assembly 2. The anti-soiling component layer 10 is not particularly limited by the present subject matter, and may include an anti-soiling component included as a distinct layer as depicted in Fig. 1 . Alternatively, an anti-soiling component may be included as part of the pigmented coating 8. In a non-limiting embodiment as depicted in Fig. 1 , when included as a distinct layer in the functional leather assembly 2, the anti-soiling component layer 10 is essentially transparent (and may be optically transparent) such that the anti-soiling component layer 10 does not significantly interfere with the transmission of light emitted by the light source 24. In another embodiment, the anti- soiling component layer 10 may be slightly pigmented such that it assists the pigmented coating 8 in concealing the circuit layer 6 from view. In one non-limiting embodiment, the anti-soiling component layer 10 has a thickness from 0.1 -10 pm, 1 - 8 pm, or 4-6 pm. In one non-limiting embodiment, the anti-soiling component layer 10 includes a polymer carrier and is applied at 1 -10 microns thick and then dried at 100°C for one minute to form a coating on the leather assembly 2. Other carriers, thicknesses, and drying times and temperatures may be used. In a non-limiting embodiment as depicted in Fig. 1 , when included as a distinct layer in the functional leather assembly 2, the anti-soiling component layer 10 may be essentially transparent (and may be optically transparent) such that the anti-soiling component layer 10 does not significantly interfere with the transmission of light emitted by the light source 24 or affect the aesthetics of the pigmented coating 8. In another embodiment, the anti-soiling component layer 10 may be pigmented such that it assists the pigmented coating 8 in concealing the circuit layer 6 from view.

[0055] The anti-soiling component included in an anti-soiling component layer 10 or in the pigmented coating 8, is not particularly limited and may comprise acrylic urethane resin, polyurethane resin, polyisocyanate, carbodiimide, fluorine-containing materials such as tetrafluoroethylene (TFE)-copolymers, silicone, etc.

[0056] Operation of the functional vehicle component 12, the electronic circuits 22, and the associated electronic elements may correspond to signals or data derived from one or more electronic systems of a vehicle or may be continuously activated during operation of the vehicle. The data or signals may be accessed from, sensed by, generated by, or otherwise acquired from or produced by one or more of the vehicle electronic systems. Further, the functional vehicle component 12, the electronic circuits 22, and the associated electronic elements may provide signals or data to the one or more electronic systems of the vehicle. For example and as described in more detail herein, the functional vehicle component 12 may include a sensor 28 and signals from the sensor 28 may be communicated to the vehicle electronic systems, and may be used to operate other electronic elements in the functional vehicle component 12 or to operate a different functional vehicle component.

[0057] The vehicle electronic systems from which this data or these signals are derived or to which this data or these signals are communicated, are not particularly limited and may include one or more vehicle electronic control units (ECU’s) associated with a vehicle engine, transmission, body, chassis, passive and active safety features, vehicle performance, driver assistance, interior and exterior environment, vehicle diagnostics, vehicle control, audio/visual entertainment, navigation, electrical systems, telematics, and combinations thereof. The vehicle electronic systems can include a door control unit, engine control unit, electric power steering control unit, human-machine interface (HMI), powertrain control module, transmission control unit; seat control unit, speed control unit, telematics control unit, transmission control unit, brake control module (ABS or ESC), battery management system, central control module, central timing module, general electronic module, body control module, suspension control module, or combinations thereof.

[0058] In a non-limiting example, the one or more flexible electronic circuits 22 are in communication with a vehicle electronic control unit (ECU) 36, which may control operation of the functional vehicle component 12, the electronic circuits 22, and the associated electronic elements. The ECU 36 may be electrically connected to a vehicle power source 40 for powering the ECU 36 or flexible electronic circuits 22. The functional vehicle component 12, including the one or more circuits 22 of the circuit layer 6, along with the various electronic elements, may be selectively operable based on a current condition or situation relating to the vehicle or vehicle components, an occupant of the vehicle, or an environment of the vehicle including an immediate or a distant surrounding environment of the vehicle, and combinations thereof. [0059] A non-limiting example of the conditions of the vehicle that may be used as a basis for such selective operation include historical, current, or projected vehicle performance characteristics or diagnostic information, or the like. Conditions of the vehicle occupants that may be used as a basis for such selective operation can include a physical condition of a driver, such as the driver being drowsy or inattentive while driving, or the proximity of an object (such as an occupant or an occupants hand) or a global position relative to the vehicle or to the functional vehicle component 12. Conditions of the surrounding environment that may be used as a basis for such selective operation can include proximity of an object (such as another vehicle) to the vehicle, the current time, newsfeeds, amber alerts, nearby points of interest, or the like.

[0060] In another non-limiting example, the one or more circuits 22 are in communication with a human machine interface (HMI) 38, which may control functioning of the functional vehicle component 12, the electronic circuits 22, and the associated electronic elements. Such arrangement could allow a user to provide input through the HMI 38 to selectively activate the circuits 22 and associated electronic elements. Such user input may be active (user initiated) or passive (sensed input from a user), and can include audible or tactile input. For example, the system may be configured to allow a user to audibly select operation of the functional vehicle component 12, the electronic circuits 22, and the associated electronic elements. An operation of the functional leather assembly 2 may be controlled by an integral actuator button (e.g. the switch 26) included in the circuit 22.

[0061] As previously disclosed, one or more separate and distinct light sources 24 may be included as electronic elements in the functional vehicle component 12. The light source 24 emits light when activated, and is electrically connected to an electronic circuit 22 of the circuit layer 6. The light source 24 may simply provide illumination by emitting light, which may be used to provide illumination to the interior or exterior of the vehicle, and the light source 24 may emit light in one or more colors and/or intensities. In a non-limiting example, the light source 24 may emit various colors and intensities of light to establish a particular“feel” or“mood” for occupants of the vehicle. For example, the light source 24 may be paired to certain functions of the vehicle or vehicle components, such that the light source 24 operates to emit light at different intensities and/or colors depending on certain circumstances such as during normal operation of the vehicle, during operation of a vehicle entertainment system, during dangerous operation of the vehicle, or other circumstances or situations as desired.

[0062] Alternatively, the light source 24 may be configured, such as by arrangement or operation, to emit light that provides visual indicators that convey information to a vehicle occupant. In other words, the light source 24 may be arranged in such a way, or may emit light in such a way that the light emitted by the light source 24 provides more than mere illumination, and instead additionally conveys information to a vehicle occupant.

[0063] The visual indicators are not particularly limited by the present disclosure, and may provide information such as warnings, notices (e.g. the time), alerts, instructions, information relating to a current condition or situation relating to the vehicle or vehicle components, an occupant of the vehicle, or an environment of the vehicle including an immediate surrounding environment of the vehicle, and combinations thereof. The visual indicators may include one or more of directional indicators such as turn-by-turn directions from a navigation system, blind spot warnings, a turn signal indicator, and combinations thereof. However, such indicators are not limited to any particular type or combination. Other illustrative examples include maintenance indicators to display information such as fluid levels/amounts such as oil or gas (or the need to change one or more fluids such as oil), battery level indicators to display characteristics of one or more batteries on the vehicle, vehicle characteristic indicators (e.g. the current speed of the vehicle), and indicators to display the distance to a desired driving destination. In one illustrative embodiment, the light emitted by the light source 24 indicates a location of the one or more electronic circuits 22 or electronic elements electrically connected to the electronic circuits 22 of the circuit layer 6. In another illustrative embodiment, the light source 24 emits light that provides a directional indicator to a driver of the vehicle, or a current time, or a current amount of fuel reserves for the vehicle.

[0064] The light source 24 may be activated to emit light when a certain associated object is within a predetermined distance from the functional vehicle component 12. In one embodiment, the light source 24 is activated to emit light when a portable electronic device 42 is within a predetermined distance from the functional vehicle component 12. In another embodiment, the functional vehicle component 12 is in communication with an HMI 38, which could allow a user to provide input to activate the light source 24 by selecting a particular type of information to be displayed by the light source 24. For example, the system may be configured to allow a user to audibly select which fluid level (such as gas, oil, windshield wiper) to indicate in real-time or to allow a user to audibly request how much time until a desired destination is reached.

[0065] The visual indicators may correspond to signals or data derived from the electronic systems of a vehicle or an HMI 38. In one embodiment, electronic system of the vehicle provides real-time signals or data that may be displayed by the light source 24. Communication between the functional vehicle component 12 and the vehicle electronic system or HMI 38 may be established through one or more intermediary systems or devices, and such communication may be performed, for example, by using a communication link or connection such as with a wired connection, Wi-Fi connection, Bluetooth connection, etc. Such communication connection allows the data or signals from/to the vehicle electronic system or HMI to be communicated to activate the light source 24 to provide the visual indicators to a vehicle occupant that corresponds to such data or signals.

[0066] The light source 24 is not limited in any way and can include luminescent light sources (e.g. electroluminescent, photoluminescent, mechanoluminescent light sources), and incandescent light sources. Illustrative examples of a light source 24 include a light emitting diode (LED), an organic light emitting diode (OLED), or a photoluminescent or electroluminescent light source configured in a film or sheet. In a non-limiting example, the one or more light sources 24 comprises LED’s having a light emitting area with a size of 100 pm x 100 pm (i.e. 100 pm diameter) or less, herein referred to micro LED’s. A micro LED is a light source that includes an array of one or more individual light emitters, wherein an array may have a diameter of about 2pm-20mm and the individual light emitters have typical diameters of about 2-20 pm. In one aspect, the one or more micro LED’s are arranged as part of an electronic circuit 22 of the circuit layer 6. [0067] As previously discussed, and as depicted in Fig. 2, the functional vehicle component 12 may comprise a smart functional wireless charger 44 including a wireless transmitter 30 (e.g. an induction coil, or a capacitive plate), which is included as an electronic element in the functional vehicle component 12. The wireless transmitter 30, may optionally be formed by printing a conductive ink in a process as described herein with respect to the flexible circuits 22, wherein the conductive ink is applied in the form of an induction coil or capacitive plate. The wireless transmitter 30 may be configured to generate an oscillating electromagnetic field 82 when activated, which can be transmitted to a corresponding wireless receiver that is configured to receive the oscillating electromagnetic field. The wireless transmitter 30 and the generated oscillating electromagnetic field 82 may be used to charge a portable electronic device 42 (e.g. a cell phone, see Fig. 2) that includes the corresponding wireless receiver, which receives the oscillating electromagnetic field 82 and converts the oscillating electromagnetic field 82 back to DC or AC electric current that can be used by an electrical load in the portable electronic device 42.

[0068] As is conventional, the wireless transmitter 30 may be able to transmit the oscillating electromagnetic field 82 to the corresponding wireless receiver in the portable electronic device 42 only over a short distance, e.g. about 1 -10 times the transmitter 30 or receiver diameters. Therefore, in one embodiment, the wireless transmitter 30 is configured to operate to generate the oscillating electromagnetic field 82 only when the portable electronic device 42 or the associated wireless receiver is within a predetermined distance, e.g. about 1 -10 times the transmitter 30 or receiver diameters, from the wireless transmitter 30. Such activation may be based on signals or data from a proximity sensor or other device included in the circuit layer 6 or elsewhere that can sense the proximity of the portable electronic device 42 with respect to the functional vehicle component 12. Alternatively, activation of the wireless transmitter 30 may be based on communication (e.g. blue tooth, cellular, near-field, RFID, Wi-Fi, or infrared communication) between the portable electronic device 42 and the functional vehicle component 12.

[0069] As depicted in Fig. 2, the smart functional wireless charger 44 may include a plurality of individual light sources 24 that are arranged, for example, in a ring around the wireless transmitter 30. In this ring or any other configuration, the individual light sources 24 each emit light that collectively indicates a location of the wireless transmitter 30 on the functional vehicle component 12. Such indication is useful, since the pigmented coating 8 may optionally conceal the wireless transmitter 30 and other portions of the circuit 22 from being visible through the pigmented coating 8, and a user therefore may not be able to locate the wireless transmitter 30 for charging the portable electronic device 42. However, light emitted by the light source 24 can be seen through the pigmented coating 8, and therefore the emitted light may provide an indication of the location of the wireless transmitter 30 to allow for wireless charging of the portable electronic device 42. In one aspect, the color of light emitted by the light source 24 changes from an initial color (for example, red light) present at the onset of charging the portable electronic device 42, to a second color (for example, green light) when the portable electronic device 42 is fully charged. Other lighting capabilities are contemplated for this embodiment, for example, the light source 24 may be activated to emit light when a door of the vehicle is opened, when the vehicle is started, and/or when a portable electronic device 42 is moved within a predetermined distance from the wireless transmitter 30. With respect to the color of light emitted by the light source 24, different colors may be provided based on the selection of the light source 24, based on the use of different lighting circuits, and/or based on programming of the microcontroller 34 to control functioning of the light source 24 as desired. The functional leather assembly 2 depicted in Fig. 2 may be included on any vehicle component 16 as desired, for example on any interior surface of a vehicle such as a vehicle seat, dashboard, or center console.

[0070] As described herein, one or more sensors 28 may be included in an electronic circuit 22 of the circuit layer 6. The sensors 28 are not particularly limited, and can include a sensor having any configuration including those that can sense pressure, temperature, proximity, location, speed, velocity, acceleration, tilt, motion, humidity, light, biometrics of a vehicle occupant, etc. In one embodiment, the circuit layer 6 includes one or more pressure sensors. The pressure sensor may include a first flexible layer of conductive material, a second flexible layer of dielectric material, and a third flexible layer of conductive material, where the second dielectric layer is arranged between and separates the first and third conductive layers. The first and third conductive layers of the pressure sensor may optionally be formed by applying a conductive ink as described herein, while the second dielectric layer may be formed by applying a dielectric material, for example an ink that is similar to the conductive ink as described herein, but one that has dielectric properties.

[0071] As described herein, a switch 26 may be included in an electronic circuit 22 of the circuit layer 6. The switch 26 may be operable to make or break a conductive path (e.g. a conductive trace 23) in the circuit 22 in order to activate a particular function of the circuit 22, the electronic elements of the circuit 22, or a vehicle system or component. The switch 26 may be a parallel plate capacitive switch for example, or other type of switch as desired such as a membrane switch, or a piezoelectric switch. A parallel plate capacitive switch or piezoelectric switch may be arranged similar to the pressure sensor as previously described herein, wherein the capacitive switch or piezoelectric switch may include a first or bottom flexible layer of conductive material (e.g. ink) printed in electrical communication with first conductive trace, followed by a sequentially printed second middle layer arranged over the bottom conductive layer, and finally a third top flexible layer of conductive material printed over the middle layer and in electrical communication with a second conductive trace. For the capacitive switch, the middle layer may include a flexible printed layer of dielectric material (e.g. a dielectric ink). For the piezoelectric switch, the middle layer may include a piezoelectric material, which may or may not be printed and cured. The piezoelectric switch may include other layers and components.

[0072] The bottom layer of the switch is cured before applying the middle layer, and if printed, the middle layer is cured before printing the top layer. That is, the bottom, middle, and top layers of the switch 26 have overlapping areas, and the second middle layer is arranged between and thus separates the first and third conductive layers.

[0073] The dielectric middle layer in the dielectric switch may include one or more sub-layers (e.g. two sub-layers) of the same or different dielectric material printed and cured over the bottom layer. The piezoelectric middle layer in the piezoelectric switch may include one or more sub-layers (e.g. two or more sublayers) of piezoelectric material, which also may be sequentially printed and cured over the bottom layer. The conductive top and bottom layers may each include one or more sub-layers (e.g. two sub-layers) of the same or different conductive ink printed and cured below and above the middle layer. Thickness of the first, second, and third layers is not particularly limited, and in one non-limiting example of the dielectric switch, the thickness may range from about 100 nm to 10 pm. The first and third conductive layers of the switch may optionally be formed by printing a conductive ink as described herein with respect to the flexible circuits 22, while the second dielectric layer of the dielectric switch may be formed by printing a similar, but dielectric ink. In this configuration, the capacitive switch may be used as a pressure sensor when electrical contact is made between the first and third conductive layers by pressing the first and third conductive layers together. Further, the capacitive switch may be used to measure biometric characteristics of a vehicle occupant in contact with the functional vehicle component 12, wherein for example, a rate at which electrical contact is made between the first and third conductive layers may be used to determine a heart rate of the occupant.

[0074] The piezoelectric switch is not particularly limited, and the piezoelectric material in the middle layer may include crystal piezoelectric material, ceramic piezoelectric material, polymer piezoelectric material, Group lll-V and ll-VI semiconductors, organic nanostructures, natural materials, bone, and combinations thereof. The piezoelectric material may include for example, lead zirconate titanate, barium titanate, quartz, berlinite, sucrose, Rochelle salt, topaz, tourmaline-group minerals, lead titanate, potassium niobate, sodium tungstate, zinc oxide (wurtzite structure), Ba2NaNbs05, Pb2KNbsOi5, sodium potassium niobate, bismuth ferrite, sodium niobate, barium titanate, bismuth titanate, sodium bismuth titanate, polyvinylidene fluoride, vinylidene fluoride-trifluoroethylene-chlorotrifluoroethylene terpolymer, P(VDF-TrFE-CTFE), vinylidene fluoride-trifluoroethylene- chlorofluoroethylene terpolymer, P(VDF-TrFE-CFE), or combinations thereof.

[0075] In one embodiment, the piezoelectric layer of the piezoelectric switch includes a piezoelectric polymer, e.g. P(VDF-TrFE-CTFE) or P(VDF-TrFE-CFE), and is printed an cured between the bottom layer and the top layer of the switch 26. The piezoelectric switch is actuatable to make or break a conductive path in the conductive trace 23 of the circuit 22. The piezoelectric switch may be actuatable to make or break the conductive path by a user/occupant pressing the piezoelectric switch, thereby deforming/compressing the piezoelectric layer between the bottom and top layer of the switch 26, and thus causing the piezoelectric material to generate a charge. Such charge may be sent to a flip-flop device in the switch 26, which is turned to steady“on” state, thus allowing current to pass therethrough and making the conductive path in the circuit 22. A further deformation/compression of the piezoelectric material will create an additional charge, which will cause the flip-flop device in the switch 26 to turn to a steady“off” stated, thus not allowing current to pass therethrough and breaking the conductive path in the circuit 22. Alternatively, the generated current from the piezoelectric switch may utilize a semiconductor device such as a field effect transistor (FET), which provides a temporary“on” state, but reverts back to a steady “off” state when the charge dissipates.

[0076] The piezoelectric switch may be connected to a power source 40 of the vehicle, which can provide an electric charge to the piezoelectric switch when the piezoelectric switch is actuated by a user pressing the switch 26. The electric charge provided to the piezoelectric switch can cause deformations of the piezoelectric layer. Such deformations may be haptically sensed by a user when the user presses the switch 26 to actuate it. Such deformations may be felt as haptic vibrations having various frequencies and/or amplitudes. Such vibrations may be characterized as haptic signals that provide haptic feedback to the user that the piezoelectric switch has been actuated to make or break the conductive path in the circuit 22.

[0077] The functional leather assembly 2 can include various other layers or components as desired. In one embodiment and although not shown in the figures, the functional leather assembly 2 includes a dielectric layer over or between one or more circuits 22 or conductive traces 23 of the circuit layer 6. The dielectric material may generally include a non-conductive resin cured to form a dielectric layer. In one embodiment, a dielectric layer is arranged between the circuit layer 6 and the pigmented coating 8 in order to avoid moisture exposure during formation of the pigmented coating 8, or to make the circuit layer 6 more durable and resistant to abrasion and therefore maintain electrical conductivity after repeated use. A dielectric layer or coating may also be used as an insulator, for example, to provide electrical insulation between a first trace or circuit and an overlying second trace or circuit. The dielectric layer may cover only the trace or circuit, or may also generally cover other portions of the circuit layer 6 or leather sheet 4. That is, the dielectric layer may be generally applied over the first circuit as one continuous layer wherein the conductive traces of the first circuit and spaces therebetween are covered by the dielectric layer, or may be applied as a discontinuous layer that covers only the conductive traces of the first circuit, but not the spaces therebetween. In one non-limiting example, the dielectric layer is applied only at a location where a second trace or circuit overlaps the first trace or circuit. In this regard, the circuit layer 6 may include a plurality of separate and distinct traces 23 and/or circuits 22 that may be arranged in different planes or sub-layers of the circuit layer 6, wherein various conductive traces 23 may overlap each other. For example, with reference to Figs. 1 and 2, although the traces 23 are depicted as not overlapping (and appear to be in the same plane or sub-layer), the traces 23 may be in different planes within the circuit layer 6 and be configured to overlap each other. As such, the circuit layer 6 may include a first trace printed on the leather sheet 4, followed by a dielectric layer applied over the first trace, and then a second trace printed on the leather sheet 4 and at least partially overlapping the first trace, yet because of the intermediary dielectric layer, the first and second trace are electrically isolated form one another. As such, the present subject matter is not limited to any particular shape or orientation of the traces 23, circuits 22 and electronic elements as depicted in the various figures, and instead can have other arrangements and orientations. In another example, a conductive ink is first printed directly on the leather sheet 4 in order to form a wireless transmitter 30, a dielectric layer is then arranged over the wireless transmitter 30, then a conductive ink is printed over the dielectric layer (or overlaps a portion of it) in order to form a separate conductive trace for a different electronic element (such as for a light source 24), and then optionally another dielectric layer is printed over the light source trace to provide abrasion resistance for the underlying layers. In this example, the dielectric layer between the wireless transmitter 30 and the light source trace electrically isolate the wireless transmitter 30 from the light source trace. [0078] In another embodiment, the functional leather assembly 2 includes the microcontroller 34 electrically connected to the circuit layer 6 at an edge of the leather sheet 4. The microcontroller 34 may be used to electrically connect to the circuits 22 of the circuit layer 6, and thus may provide communication to and from the one or more circuits 22 and electronic elements, or to control functions of the one or more circuits 22 and electronic elements. The microcontroller 34 may be mounted at the edge of the leather sheet 4 and functional leather assembly 2 before or after the functional leather assembly 2 is fixed over the top surface 14 of the vehicle component 16. The various vehicle electronic systems, such as an ECU 36 HMI 38, or power source 40, may be electrically connected to functional leather assembly 2 through the microcontroller 34 in order to communicate with the functional leather assembly 2.

[0079] The one or more circuits 22 and the electronic elements may each be electrically connected to the power source 40 of the vehicle for providing electrical power to the circuits 22 for activating the electronic elements. The vehicle power source 40 may comprise a vehicle battery, engine, or alternator, for example. The power source 40 may be connected to the functional leather assembly 2 through the microcontroller 34. In one embodiment, a smart functional vehicle system 84 includes a smart functional vehicle component 12, along with one or more of the microcontroller 34, ECU 36, HMI 38, and vehicle power source 40.

[0080] With reference to Fig. 3, an illustrative example of a smart functional vehicle component 12 includes a smart functional vehicle seat 48 (also referred to herein as “vehicle seat” or“seat”). The seat 48 includes a bottom 50, a back 52, and a headrest 54. The vehicle seat 48 includes a functional leather assembly 2 over the front surface 56 of the back 52 of the seat 48. It will be appreciated that although visibility of the circuit 22 in the functional leather assembly 2 may be inhibited or prevented by pigmented coating 8 and thus camouflaged by the pigmented coating 8, the circuit 22 is schematically depicted in Fig. 3 in order to indicate it’s arrangement on the vehicle seat 48. As in other embodiments, the functional leather assembly 2 of the vehicle seat 48 may include one or more electronic elements. As depicted, the functional leather assembly 2 of the seat 48 includes two individual light sources 24, and two sensors 28. More or less, and different electronic elements may be included as desired on the seat 48. The sensors 28 may be configured to sense biometrics, such as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, etc., of a vehicle occupant who is sitting on the seat 48. The light source 24 may be configured to activate when a vehicle door is open to provide illumination to the seat 48, or during operation of the vehicle in order to provide mood lighting in a passenger compartment of the vehicle. Further, a switch 26, for example a piezoelectric switch, may be provided to manually turn the light source 24 on or off or to produce other functions. More or less, and different electronic elements may be included on the seat 48, and at different locations on the seat 48, including on the bottom 50, the headrest 54, or an armrest (not shown).

[0081] With reference to Fig. 4, an illustrative example of a smart functional vehicle component 12 includes a smart functional steering wheel 58 (also referred to herein as“steering wheel”). The steering wheel 58 includes a central hub 60, an outer wheel 62, and spokes 64 extending between the hub 60 and outer wheel 62. A functional leather assembly 2 may be included over one or more of the hub 60, outer wheel 62 and spokes 64. In one embodiment, the outer wheel 62 includes one or more sensors 28. The one or more sensors 28 may be pressure sensors for sensing the presence of a user’s hand on the outer wheel 62. The sensors 28 may also be configured to sense biometrics, such as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, etc., of a user. It will be appreciated that although visibility of the sensors 28 may be inhibited or prevented by pigmented coating 8 of the functional leather assembly 2, a plurality of sensors 28 are schematically depicted in Fig. 4 in order to indicate their arrangement on the outer wheel 62. As depicted, the sensors 28 are spaced from one another and are arranged on the exposed portions of the outer wheel 62 and around the entire circumference of the outer wheel 62. In a non-limiting example, each of the sensors 28 is circumferentially spaced by no more than two inches from an adjacent sensor 28. In other words, there is no portion of more than two consecutive inches along the entire circumference of the outer wheel 62 that is without a sensor 28. By this arrangement, anywhere a driver places his/her hands on the outer wheel 62, there will be a sensor 28 there so that the sensors 28 can collectively sense the presence of a user’s hand no matter where the user’s hand contacts the outer wheel 62. The steering wheel 58 may alternately include one continuous sensor arranged on the exposed portions of the outer wheel 62 and extending around the entire circumference of the outer wheel 62.

[0082] In another embodiment, the hub 60 includes a light source 24 including an array 68 of individual light sources. The light sources, which are not individually depicted in Fig. 4, may be arranged in the array 68 in such a way that light emitted from the array 68 conveys information to a vehicle occupant. As depicted, the array 68 is displaying a visual indicator 70, which may be a directional indicator that is based on information or data derived from a navigation system. The visual indicator 70 is indicating a direction (i.e. right turn) for the vehicle to follow in order to reach a predetermined destination.

[0083] As shown, the array 68 covers an area on the surface of the hub 60 and has an illuminated area 72 and a non-illuminated area 74. The right turn visual indicator 70 is presented by a contrast between the illuminated area 72 of the array 68 (light from which is visible through the pigmented coating 8 of the functional leather assembly 2) and the non-illuminated area 74 of the array 68 (which is not visible through the pigmented coating 8). As such, the visual indicator 70 is determined by activation of a specific combination of individual light sources in the array 68. As will be appreciated, a different combination of individual light sources in the array 68 may be activated as desired in order to provide a different arrangement between the illuminated area 72 and the non-illuminated area 74, such that light emitted by the illuminated area 72 may convey other visual indicators and other information, such as other directional indicators, a current speed or time, etc.

[0084] In another embodiment, one or more of the spokes 64 of the steering wheel 58 may each include a switch 26, such as a capacitive switch or piezoelectric switch. As schematically depicted, one switch 26 is included on each of two of the spokes 64. It will be appreciated that although visibility of the switches 26 may be inhibited or prevented by the pigmented coating 8 of the functional leather assembly 2, the switches 26 are schematically depicted in Fig. 4 in order to indicate their arrangement on the spokes 64. The switches 26 may be configured to control one or more functions of the vehicle or vehicle systems, e.g. an entertainment system. [0085] As depicted, a plurality of individual light sources 24 are provided on the spokes 64 and are arranged around the perimeter of the two switches 26. In this configuration, the individual light sources 24 each emit light that collectively indicates a location of the switches 26. Such indication is useful, since the pigmented coating 8 may conceal the switches 26 from being readily visible through the pigmented coating 8, and a user may not be able to locate the switches 26 for controlling one or more functions of the vehicle or vehicle systems. However, light emitted by the light sources 24 can be seen through the pigmented coating 8, and therefore the emitted light provides an indication of the location of the switches 26. In a non-limiting example, the light sources 24 may be activated to continuously emit light during operation of the vehicle in order to indicate the location of the switches 26, and may be deactivated when the vehicle is not being operated to thereby present a plain exposed surface for the spokes 64 of the steering wheel 58. More or less, and different electronic elements may be included as desired on the steering wheel 58.

[0086] With reference to Fig. 5, an illustrative example of a smart functional vehicle component 12 includes a smart functional dashboard 76 (also referred to herein as “dashboard”), which may include an instrument panel 78 and a glove box 80. The dashboard 76 includes a functional leather assembly 2 as discussed herein. The functional leather assembly 2 is fixed over an A-surface of the dashboard 76 and presents as a plain exposed surface for the dashboard 76. As depicted, the dashboard 76 includes a light source 24 including an array 68 of individual light sources. The array 68 depicted in Fig. 5 may be similar to the array 68 depicted in Fig. 4 on the hub 60 of the steering wheel 58.

[0087] As depicted, the array 68 is displaying a visual indicator 70, which may be a current speed of the vehicle. As in Fig. 4, the array 68 covers an area on the surface of the dashboard 76 and has an illuminated area 72 and a non-illuminated area 74. The visual indicator 70 showing the current speed is presented by a contrast between the illuminated area 72 of the array 68 and the non-illuminated area 74 of the array 68. As such, the visual indicator 70 is determined by activation of a specific combination of individual light sources in the array 68. As will be appreciated, a different combination of individual light sources in the array 68 may be activated as desired in order to provide a different arrangement between the illuminated area 72 and the non-illuminated area 74, such that light emitted by the illuminated area 72 may convey other visual indicators and other information, such as a current time, the current amount of fuel reserves for the vehicle, etc. Activation of the array 68 on the dashboard 76 or on the steering wheel 58 may be activated by audible signals from a user. For example, a user may audibly request that the array 68 on the dashboard 76 or on the steering wheel 58 display the current speed, current amount of fuel reserves for the vehicle, distance from a selected destination, etc. More or less, and different electronic elements may be included as desired on the dashboard 76.

[0088] With reference to Fig. 6, an illustrative example of a smart functional vehicle component 12 includes a smart functional door panel 86 (also referred to herein as “door panel”). The door panel 86 includes a functional leather assembly 2 as discussed herein. The functional leather assembly 2 is fixed over an A-surface of the door panel 86 and presents as a plain exposed surface for the door panel 86. The door panel 86 may include one or more switches 26, such as a capacitive or piezoelectric switch, that are operable to move a window 88, adjust a mirror 90, or operate an interior light 92 of the vehicle. The smart functional door panel 86 may include a plurality of individual light sources 24 that are arranged on the circuit 22 and, for example, in a ring around the switches 26. In this ring configuration, the individual light sources 24 each emit light that collectively indicates a location of the switches 26 on the functional door panel 86. Such indication is useful, since the pigmented coating 8 may conceal the switches 26 and other portions of the circuit 22 from being visible through the pigmented coating 8, and a user therefore may not be able to readily locate the switches 26 for operating the window 88 and mirrors 90. Flowever, light emitted by the light sources 24 can be seen through the pigmented coating 8, and therefore the emitted light may provide an indication of the location of the switches 26 to allow for operation of the switches 26. Further, if the switches 26 are piezoelectric switches, their operation may result in haptic feedback being provide to a user to indicate that the switches 26 have been operated.

[0089] The smart functional vehicle component 12 may provide various functionalities in a vehicle including a dynamic illumination experience by providing changing the color of emitted light to the interior of the vehicle according to a vehicle speed, a driving mode, a driver’s mood/condition based on biofeedback data, a current music selection. The smart functional vehicle component 12 may also be used to monitor a driver’s condition to maintain safe driving using sensors 28 to monitor heart rate, peripheral capillary oxygen saturation, or a driver’s health condition, and the data from such monitoring can be used to improve a driver’s user experience. Illumination provided by the functional vehicle component 12 can also be utilized to keep a driver attentive by provide real time feedback. When the functional vehicle component 12 is a seat 48, the use of a functional vehicle component 12 can reduce the complexity of the seat because the functional vehicle component 12 can include a number or different electronic elements. That is, the functional vehicle component 12 can be utilized as a pressure sensor 28 on the seat 48, and measure pressure points. This can help to identify driver seat pressure and automatically adjust seat position for driver comfort. This also reduces the need for a separate component of a pressure sensor installed separately on a seat. The functional vehicle component 12 can also be used to give opportunities to create innovative vehicle styling, such as creating navigation directional indicators (Fig. 4) on a steering wheel 58, or a vehicle speed displayed on an interior panel (Fig. 5). The functional vehicle component 12 can also be utilized as a wireless charging pad (Fig. 2) for charging a portable electronic device 42.

[0090] The present subject matter includes a method of producing a functional leather assembly 2. The functional leather assembly 2 may be produced by passing a hide through conventional processes such as soaking, sammying, shaving, fleshing/splitting, drying, staking, and milling. Then, after application of a base coat, the hide is set aside to rest. The hide is then cut to a predetermined shape to produce a leather sheet 4 that will fit over a particular vehicle component 16. An electronic circuit 22 is then printed, utilizing conductive ink, on the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4. The conductive ink can be applied through any method, and in an illustrative embodiment, is applied by one of (a) screen printing, (b) aerosol jet printing (c) inkjet printing. A light source 24 (e.g. micro LED’s), or other electronic element, may be formed with or placed on the circuit 22. Then pigmented coating 8 can be applied over the circuit 22 and light source 24 to thereby produce a functional leather assembly 2. The functional leather assembly 2 can be placed in interior of a vehicle as an interior panel lining, door lining, or seat cover for example.

[0091] The present subject matter includes a method of producing a functional vehicle component 12. The functional vehicle component 12 may be, for example, a smart functional wireless charger 44, a smart functional vehicle seat 48, a smart functional steering wheel 58, a smart functional dashboard 76, or other smart functional vehicle component.

[0092] The functional vehicle component 12 may be produced by fixing a leather sheet 4 over a surface 14 of a vehicle component 16, such that the leather sheet 4 is conformed to contours of the vehicle component 16. A flexible electronic circuit 22 is applied (e.g. printed) to an A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4, and a pigmented coating 8 is arranged over the circuit 22. Visibility of the circuit 22 through the pigmented coating 8 is optionally concealed or camouflaged by the pigmented coating, and in one embodiment the circuit 22 is not visible through the pigmented coating 8. In an embodiment, the pigmented coating 8 is a pigmented layer, and a pigment loading in the pigmented coating 8 may be sufficient to inhibit or prevent the circuit 22 from being visible through the pigmented coating 8. The circuit 22 and the pigmented coating 8 may be applied to the leather sheet 4 before or after the leather sheet 4 is fixed over the top surface 14 of the vehicle component 16. During fixing of the leather sheet 4 over the top surface 14 of the vehicle component 16, the circuit 22 is conformed to contours of the top surface 14 of the vehicle component 16. The method may further include applying a dielectric layer over the circuit 22, wherein the dielectric layer is arranged between the circuit 22 and the pigmented coating 8.

[0093] The method may include electrically connecting the circuit 22 to a vehicle ECU 36, to a vehicle power source 40, a vehicle HMI 38, or other vehicle systems, and such connections may be made directly by a wire, or through an intermediary microcontroller 34 located at an edge of the leather sheet 4.

[0094] The method may include providing a light source 24 that emits light when activated, and electrically connecting the light source to the circuit 22. The one or more individual light sources 24, such as a micro LEDs, may be connected to the circuit 22 for example by soldering of electrical contacts or other method. The light source 24 is arranged within the flexible circuit layer 6 and directly in contact with the circuit 22. As such, the pigmented coating 8 is arranged over the circuit 22 and over the light source 24. Visibility of the light source 24 through the pigmented coating 8 may be inhibited, by the pigmented coating 8, and in one embodiment the light source 24 is not visible through the pigmented coating 8, but light emitted by the light source 24 is visible through the pigmented coating 8. The light source 24 is arranged in such a way, or is configured to emit light in such a way that light emitted by the light source provides visual indicators that convey information to a vehicle occupant.

[0095] The method may include applying an acrylic urethane anti-soiling component over the A-surface of the leather sheet 4, wherein the anti-soiling component is included a) as part of the pigmented coating 8, or b) as a topcoat (i.e. an anti-soiling component layer 10) over the pigmented coating 8.

[0096] The entire leather assembly 2, before being arranged on a surface 14 of a vehicle component 16, may be embossed as depicted in Fig. 7, to provide an embossed texture at the exposed surface 32 of the leather assembly 2, which may be considered the A-surface 32 of the leather assembly 2. The functionality of the circuit 22 is not destroyed by embossing. In other words, electrical conductivity of the conductive traces 23 is not broken by embossing the functional leather assembly 2 and the optional electronic elements of the circuit 22 are still functional after embossing. The circuit 22 is therefore able to perform electronic operations even after embossing the leather assembly 2.

[0097] Embossment of the leather assembly 2 can comprise roll-to-roll heated embossment accomplished by processing the leather assembly 2 through heated embossing rollers 94 to impart the embossed texture over the exposed surface 32 of the leather assembly 2. Roll-to-roll heated embossment can comprise embossment at conditions of 80-100°C, 20-30 Bar, and dwell speed of 2.5-4.5 to apply natural leather grain embossment pattern to the exposed surface 32 of the functional leather assembly 2. Embossment of the leather assembly 2 can comprise other methods, including roll-to-plate, roll-to-die, stamping, clamping, punching, pressing, and the use of various embossing rollers, embossing dies, embossing stamps, or other embossing tools. The embossed texture is not particularly limited, and may include leather grain, dimples or other textures, patterns, indicia, or a combination thereof. The leather grain texture can include reproductions of various animal grains, including cow, snake, crocodile, other animals, and variations and combinations thereof. Through applying different types of embossment, the smart functional leather assembly 2 can have different types of aesthetic appearances and feel at the exposed surface 32, while maintaining functionality imparted by the circuit layer 6.

[0098] The embossed texture is applied directly to the exposed surface 32 of the leather assembly 2 and over the circuit layer 6, for example as depicted in Fig. 7. The embossing parameters (e.g. the pressure applied to the leather assembly 2 by the embossing rollers 94 the dwell time of the leather assembly 2 between the embossing rollers 94 and the temperature of the embossing rollers 94 and parameters of the various components of the leather assembly 2 (including for example, the thicknesses and compositions of the leather sheet 4, the circuit layer 6, the pigmented coating 8, and the anti-soiling component layer 10 a can be tailored to avoid the functionality of the circuit layer 6 from being eliminated or damaged by the embossment. In one embodiment, the functionality of the circuit layer 6 is not eliminated by the embossment process, such that the electrical conductivity of the conductive traces 23 is not broken and the functionality of the other electronic elements is not eliminated by embossing of the functional leather assembly 2. The functionality of the circuit layer 6, including the conductive traces 23 and electronic elements, can be assessed after embossing the functional leather assembly 2.

[0099] In an embodiment, the vehicle component 16 is a steering wheel 58, the circuit 22 includes pressure sensors 28, and the pressure sensors 28 are arranged around the entire circumference of the steering wheel 58.

[0100] In another embodiment, the vehicle component 16 is a seat 48, the circuit 22 includes a biometric sensor 28, which is configured to measure biometrics of a user sitting on the seat 48.

[0101] The method may include applying a second flexible electronic circuit to the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4. The second flexible electronic circuit may be similar to the first flexible electronic circuit, such that the pigmented coating 8 is arranged over the second circuit. As such, the pigmented coating 8 may inhibit or prevent the second circuit from being visible through the pigmented coating 8. The second circuit is configured to perform a different function than the first circuit, which may mean that each circuit is electrically isolated/separated from the other circuit, or that each circuit can be independently operated, or that each circuit can function separately from the other circuits. In one embodiment, the second circuit is electrically isolated from the first circuit.

[0102] In an embodiment, the second circuit includes a wireless transmitter 30, which is configured to generate an oscillating electromagnetic field 82 when an associated portable electronic device 42 is within a predetermined distance from the wireless transmitter 30. The light source 24 may be configured to emit light that indicates a location of the wireless transmitter 30 when the portable electronic device 42 is within a predetermined distance from the wireless transmitter 30.

[0103] In another embodiment, the second circuit may include a switch 26, such as a capacitive or piezoelectric switch, that is operable to make or break a conductive path, e.g. conductive trace 23, in the second circuit; and the light source 24 is configured to emit light that indicates a location of the switch 26.

[0104] The present subject matter also includes a method of producing a vehicle system 84. The method includes applying a flexible electronic circuit 22 to an A- surface 18 of a leather sheet 4. A light source 24 is electrically connected to the circuit 22. The light source 24 is configured to emit light when supplied with electrical power. A pigmented coating 8 is arranged over the circuit 22 and over the light source 24. The method includes fixing the leather sheet 4 over a surface 14 of a vehicle component 16 such that the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4 is facing away from the vehicle component 16. The circuit 22 is electrically connected to a vehicle electronic control unit 36 and a vehicle power source 40. The pigmented coating 8 optionally inhibits or prevent the circuit 22 and the light source 24 from being visible through the pigmented coating 8. However, light emitted by the light source 24 is visible through the pigmented coating 8. In one embodiment, the vehicle component 16 comprises an interior panel, a door, a seat, a steering wheel, a dashboard, a center console, or a gear shifter. [0105] A method of producing a functional leather component may include providing a leather sheet 4; applying to an A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4, a flexible electronic circuit 22 including a piezoelectric switch 26 that can be actuated to make or break a conductive path in the circuit 22; and arranging a pigmented coating 8 over the circuit 22. When a user actuates the switch 26 to make or break the conductive path in the circuit 22, the piezoelectric switch 26 provides haptic feedback to the user that the piezoelectric switch 26 has been actuated. The pigmented coating 8 may inhibit or prevent the circuit 22 including the piezoelectric switch 26 from being visible through the pigmented coating 8. The piezoelectric switch 26 may be applied to the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4 by printing a piezoelectric material on the A- surface 18 of the leather sheet 4. The leather sheet 4, the flexible electronic circuit 22, and the pigmented coating 8 may then be embossed to impart an embossed pattern over the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4. Embossing may include passing the leather sheet 4, the flexible electronic circuit 22, and the pigmented coating 8 through a roll-to-roll embosser. A light source 24 may be provided that emits light when electrical power is supplied to the light source 24. The light source 24 may be electrically connected to the circuit 22. The pigmented coating 8 may be arranged over the light source 24, and may inhibit or prevent the light source 24 from being visible through the pigmented coating 8. However, light emitted by the light source 24 may be visible through the pigmented coating 8. The light source 24 may include a micro light emitting diode and may be configured to emit light that indicates a location of the piezoelectric switch 26. An acrylic urethane anti-soiling component may be applied over the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4. The anti-soiling component may be included a) as part of the pigmented coating 8, or b) as a top coat 10 over the pigmented coating 8. The leather sheet 4 may be fixed over a surface 14 of a vehicle component 16. During fixing, the circuit 22 may conform to contours of the surface 14 of the vehicle component 16. The vehicle component 16 may include a steering wheel, a seat, an arm rest, a center console, a dashboard, an interior panel, a door, a gear shifter, or combinations thereof.

[0106] A method of producing a functional vehicle component 12 may include applying to the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4, a flexible electronic circuit 22 including a piezoelectric switch 26 that is actuatable to make or break a conductive path in the circuit 22; arranging the pigmented coating 8 over the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4 and over the flexible electronic circuit 22 including the piezoelectric switch 26; fixing the leather sheet 4 over the surface 14 of the vehicle component 16 such that the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4 is facing away from the vehicle component 16; and connecting the circuit 22 to a vehicle electronic control unit 36 and a vehicle power source 40. Upon actuation of the piezoelectric switch 26 to make or break the conductive path in the circuit 22, the piezoelectric switch 26 may provide a haptic signal that indicates the actuation of the piezoelectric switch 26. The pigmented coating 8 may inhibit or prevent the circuit 22 including the piezoelectric switch 26 from being visible through the pigmented coating 8. The vehicle component may include a steering wheel, a seat, an arm rest, a center console, a dash board, interior panel, a door, a gear shifter, or combinations thereof.

[0107] The present subject matter also includes a method 96 of producing an embossed functional leather assembly 2. As depicted in Fig. 8, the method 96 includes a step 98 of preparing a smart functional leather assembly 2, and then a step 100 of embossing the smart functional leather assembly 2. A step 98 of method 96 of Fig. 8 may include, in whole or in part, a method 102 (Fig. 9) of producing a functional leather assembly 2. The method 102 of Fig. 9 includes a step 104 of providing a leather sheet 4, applying a circuit 22 to the leather sheet 4 at step 106, optionally connecting an electronic element to the circuit 22 at step 108, applying a pigmented coating 8 on the circuit 22 at step 1 10, and applying an anti-soiling component layer 10 on the pigmented coating 8 at step 1 12.

[0108] The leather sheet 4 may be provided in step 104 of method 102 as an animal hide, preliminarily prepared before application of the circuit 22 by passing the animal hide through various processes such as soaking, sammying, shaving, fleshing/splitting, drying, staking, and milling. Then, after application of a base coat, the hide may be set aside to rest. The hide may then be cut to a predetermined shape to produce a leather sheet 4 that can be arranged on a particular vehicle component 16. [0109] An electronic circuit 22 may then be applied in step 106 of method 102 by printing a conductive ink on the A-surface 18 of the leather sheet 4. The conductive ink can be applied through any suitable process or technique, and in an illustrative embodiment, is applied by one or more of (a) screen printing, (b) aerosol jet printing, and (c) inkjet printing. One or more electronic elements (e.g. a light source 24 such as a micro LED) may optionally be arranged on the leather sheet 4 as part of the circuit 22 in step 108 of method 102.

[0110] Then the pigmented coating 8 can be applied on the circuit 22 in step 1 10 of method 102. The pigmented coating 8 can include one or more separately applied layers with each including pigment, such that the pigmented coating 8 may inhibit or prevent the circuit 22 from being visible therethrough. The anti-soiling component layer 10 is optionally applied on the pigmented coating 8 in step 1 12 of method 102 to thereby produce a functional leather assembly 2. Step 1 12 optionally includes applying an acrylic urethane resin anti-soiling component as part of the pigmented coating 8, and/or as a topcoat (i.e. an anti-soiling component layer 10) that is separate from and applied over the pigmented coating 8.

[0111] The functional leather assembly 2 is then embossed in step 100 of method 96. Embossment may be accomplished by roll-to-roll embossing, for example, by sending the functional leather assembly 2 through two embossing rollers 94 as indicated by the left-pointing arrow in Fig. 7, which thereby results in an embossed functional leather assembly 2. Embossment is performed such that the circuit 22 and associated electronic elements of the circuit 22 do not lose functionality. The embossed functional leather assembly 2 can be arranged on a vehicle component 16 so as to form a functional surface coving for the vehicle component 16, which can then be used as a functional interior panel, seat, or steering wheel, for example. The method may also include connecting a microcontroller 34 to the circuit 22, for optional connection to a power source 40, ECU 36, and/or HMI 38, to allow the circuit 22 to perform an operation.

[0112] It will be appreciated that various of the above-disclosed and other features and functions, or alternatives or varieties thereof, may be desirably combined into many other different systems or applications. Also that various presently unforeseen or unanticipated alternatives, modifications, variations or improvements therein may be subsequently made by those skilled in the art which are also intended to be encompassed by the following claims.