In the global automotive seating market worth some $27bn annually, suppliers must offer seats that are more comfortable, durable and safer than last year’s designs but also lighter and cheaper too. How do they do it? Matthew Beecham takes a closer look at some seating innovations as well as some ‘smart’ auto glazing solutions and three new products to help save lives.

Are we sitting comfortably?

Climb into a new car today and it’s likely to be more supportive, versatile and pleasant to sit in with a multitude of hidden creature comforts such as adjustable lumbar supports, massage systems, climate control systems, memory mechanisms, height and rake adjustments, self-positioning headrests, built-in seatbelts and, of course, airbags. Seats are also becoming lighter by as much as 50%. This paradox is achieved through novel designs using magnesium rather than steel or tougher foam in preference to metal frames. Here we present a round-up of the latest technology coming to the fore in seating.

Climate control seats

In the US, the rising demand for sport utility vehicles has brought with it a surge in demand for seat heaters. Carmakers are offering seat heaters which warm nearly every part of the seat. While the market for seat heating is warming up, demand for seat cooling is expected to gather momentum. Manufacturers say it will become more popular than heating and more affordable by the end of this decade. The California-based group Amerigon are currently supplying a climate control seat system (CCS) as an option for driver and front seat passengers on the 2000 model year Lincoln Navigator sports utility vehicle in the US (via Johnson Controls), the 2001 model year Lexus LS430 luxury sedan in the US and Europe and in the 2001 Toyota Celsior in Japan. Confident in booming sales for the this ‘world first’, Amerigon present and CEO, Richard A Weisbart, said: “We are well positioned to meet the increasing demand for CCS from current customers, as well as from the future automotive platforms we see being solidified over the next 12 months. We are continuing to aggressively market CCS to more than 20 automotive platforms teams worldwide.” Such management effort seems to be paying off. Ford is said to have agreed to use Amerigon’s CCS system exclusively for heated and cooled or heated and ventilated seats for a period of five years.

Globally, Amerigon estimate that there are around 13.5m heated seats sold annually to carmakers. Since the CCS product provides active heating, cooling and dehumidification, Amerigon believe that the market potential could be greater for CCS. On the Lincoln Navigator, the company believes that about half of the estimated 40,000 units sold in 1999 in North America took heated seats as an option with very few of those sales occurring in warmer climates, such as the South. Simply put, with the availability of cooled seats, more buyers in hot climates may be attracted to this option.

According to Amerigon’s vice president of sales and marketing Dan Coker, by directly heating and cooling the seat occupants rather than the cabin space, carmakers have found that they can actually reduce the size, weight and energy consumption of the HVAC system. Speaking to just-auto from his office in Irwindale, California, he said: “It’s hot all year round here. I used to always turn my air conditioning system onto maximum cooling to and from work. Right now, with our heated and air condition seats, I find that I turn my HVAC unit off after just 2-3 minutes because I don’t need it anymore. My drive into work the temperature is about 20 – 25 degrees Celsius. My drive home in the summer time is easily 40 degrees.”

But Amerigon’s CCS technology is still expensive. According to Dan Coker, prior to the introduction of CCS, the Lincoln Navigator offered consumers heated front seats for $300. The CCS is offered at $600. “Although the consumer is paying double, remember that he is getting double the effect – he can use our CCS feature year round,” says salesman Coker. The technology is also migrating to the back seats. The company is currently working on three programmes, due for launch in 2002.

Figure 1 – Amerigon’s Climate Control Seat

Functional seats

The latest must-have feature on multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs) and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) is a third row of seats. Driven by consumers’ demand for greater functionality for their vehicles, the number of SUVs offered with a third seat row will gradually increase throughout this decade. The overall lengthening of SUVs and pick-ups in the US alone is a clear trend aimed at adding passenger space. General Motors, for example, plans to offer stretch versions of its mid-size SUVs that will include the extra seating, in an effort to compete against DaimlerChrysler’s Dodge Durango and the redesigned Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer. Although offering greater functionality for consumers, third row seating will hardly mean a financial windfall for suppliers.

Flexible seats

As consumers demand more flexibility from their seats, suppliers must find yet more novel ways to collapse them. Most work is focussed on folding seats into the floor and roof. The Opel Zafira is a case in point. US-based Johnson Controls designed the seating mechanisms to offer ‘unmatched interior flexibility’. In just a few minutes, the Zafira converts from a seven-seat vehicle with five cubic feet of storage to a two-seater with 60 cubic feet for luggage. The mechanisms allow the seats to be moved and folded, giving the Zafira multiple space configurations, without removing any seats.

Figure 2 – Opel Zafira seating arrangement

Pursuing the ‘flexible’ seating theme, Mazda’s MPV offers a standard feature that allows the third seat row to pivot 90 degrees rearward when the boot is open, transforming it into a bench seat for those with picnics in mind. The third seat also folds into the floor. Lear, meanwhile, has proposals for washable third row seats that lift out of the car and can be used on picnics or at the beach.

Seats for the young–

An important emerging customer base that places a high priority on the total interior package of their new vehicles is the so-called Generation Y group. In the US alone, these represent some 60m people born between 1979 and 1994. Given they represent the country’s largest group of first time car buyers, small wonder that car interior designers are taking a keen interest in their likes and dislikes, not least how they buy. Pat Murray, deputy vice president of Lear’s technology division told us: “If you look at how they (Generation Y) purchase computers on the internet, you’ll see that they’ll buy a monitor from one supplier, a CPU from another supplier just to get started. Once they save up money, they’ll come back and buy a CD ROM, a DVD or a CD Writer. The brands don’t matter to them. They just go on the internet and look for high quality features. Although they are very quality conscious, they are also incredibly cost conscious. So they are also shopping on the internet where they have a thousand different places to choose from. So, the way they are familiar with buying, we are working with our OEM customers to try and help them prepare for this type of automotive environment. Because we are convinced that the Y Generation will want all these features but they won’t be able to afford them on their first vehicle, we’re aiming to give them the ability to buy a vehicle that is modular and flexible so that they can come back to add features as they save up money.”

–and young at heart

Two years ago, Lear revealed a new interior concept. Known as the TransG, it incorporates features that the US supplier claim will make life easier for so-called “maturing baby boomers” who still want to maintain active lifestyles as they enter retirement. To develop the TransG, Lear studied a group of men and women aged between 50 and 75 who took part in a number of ergonomic exercises and consumer focus groups. The results of that study led to the design of seats that swivel outwards at 45-degrees and are trimmed in leather to allow a baby boomer to slide in and out of the seat easily. From a safety viewpoint, a four-point belt, rather than the traditional three-point, is used because it is easier to put on and does not cut across the chest. An air collar is integrated into the seat belt which inflates to protect the head and neck in a crash. The seat also has integrated side bolster airbags and a cushion restraint device which raises the occupants’ knees to stop them sliding out under the seat belts in the event of a crash. According to Lear, the blue interior is also ‘a more peaceful and relaxing colour’ for the target customer.

Figure 3 – Lear’s TransG seat

Weight watchers

Traditionally steel has been the predominant material for seat frames, but alternative materials are being used in order to save weight. Until recently, aluminium had been used in concept seating but only in the form of components, not a full frame. One major factor acting against aluminium is its price volatility. It tends to be used as a direct steel substitute in the form of sheet or tube rather than as a casting, but some manufacturers have developed some interesting hybrid seat frames that combine aluminium and steel. For the Audi A4 1.2-litre, however, Lear designed a set of ultra-lightweight rear seats. Lear claims that, compared to the basic 1.4-litre A2, the new seat concept is 50% lighter. The lightweight concept was developed using an aluminium variant as the basic construct rather than conventional steel.

Despite the increasing use of lighter materials, higher strength steels and lightweight composite cushions, a typical bucket seat for a mass-produced car typically still weighs in at around 35lb. The lightweight material innovations have been nullified by the move towards more comfortable and stronger seats which accommodate air ducts, adjustable lumbar supports, massage systems, memory mechanisms, height and rake adjustments, self-positioning headrests, built-in seatbelts and airbags. Bundling some of these components into a module, Lear claims its Integrated Seat Adjuster Module — combining seat adjustment, power lumbar support, memory function and heated seat into one package — has two dozen fewer cut circuits and five fewer connectors, weighs a half of a pound less and costs 20% less than a traditional seat wiring system.

Figure 4 – Before: Lear’s seat adjuster system

Figure 5 – After: Lear’s seat adjuster system

Tomorrow’s cars: a window of opportunity

There’s a lot going on in light reactive windows these days. US-based Research Frontiers Inc has developed a light control technology, known as SPD (Suspended Particle Device) for controlling light in vehicles. A thin film is sandwiched inside the glass that conducts a low voltage of electricity. As a current passes through it, masses of suspended particles join together or disperse, allowing more or less light to pass through.

Auto applications include sunroofs, sunvisors, rear-view mirrors, instrument panels and navigation systems. It means that you can simply turn a dial to block out the light, eliminating the need for a sliding shade panel all together. That’s important for the sunroof makers as they move towards offering ‘open sky’ roof designs.

Compared to other transparency control devices – such as electrochromic or liquid crystal – SPD is cheaper per square foot and reacts faster. “Not only do we have a cost and speed advantage,” says John Tobias, Director of Automotive Marketing for Research Frontiers, “but with SPD you can precisely tune an entire range automatically or manually. It can be totally dark, totally bright or somewhere in between. Electrochromic technology can still be tuned but not to the extent that SPD can. Another advantage is that SPD is a film. It can be shipped all over the world. So you can have glass waiting at any factory on a global basis and the film can just be shipped to that factory, unlike electrochromic.” In the default state, with the power off, the window is dark and would not be able to form the main component of a windscreen. Perhaps the upper band strip but not the entire windscreen. But when a motorist parks their car, SPD would be in the ‘off’ state, an advantage for sunroof applications.

According to Tobias, there are around 6.2m sunroofs manufactured globally, or 11.6% of the estimated 53.8m cars and SUVs produced annually. Sunroof penetration rates have been growing steadily, and some industry leaders expect the percentage of vehicles with sunroofs worldwide to grow to 50% over the course of the decade. The self-dimming rear-view mirror market is also set to explode. Tobias estimates there are 150m rear-view mirrors for cars and trucks produced worldwide, of which 6m are self-dimming. The electrochromic mirror market is presently estimated at $2.5bn and is reckoned to grow tenfold over the next 10 years.

Figure 6 – SPD rear-view mirror

There are plenty of licensees for this technology, too. Research Frontiers include Glaverbel, Global Mirror, Hankuk Glass Industries and AP Technologies as licensees. Asahi Glass’ North American subsidiary, AP Technoglass, recently bought the global non-exclusive rights to manufacture SPD sunroof glass. “Right now,” says Doug Nouse, Vice President of Business Planning at AP Technoglass, “we’re talking to our customers about this technology. It looks very promising. We expect to see smart sunroof glass on US roads by 2003.”

Another application with massive potential is sunvisors. The question is whether a carmaker will want to turn a commodity priced sunvisor into a premium priced option. Tobias reckons they will. “For just a few more dollars, you get a whole lot more. Incorporating SPD into a sun visor is an important safety issue. You now have the ability to look right through that sun visor and not get blinded.”

Sure, it’s clever stuff with huge market potential including smart window products for homes and buildings, sky lights, appliances, interior partitions, sunglasses, sports goggles, visors, laptop computers, cell phones, handheld devices such as point of purchase displays, billboards and other signage applications. But how is this all going to pan out? Stay tuned.

Just-auto safety bytes

  • From 100kph to a standstill in just 30 metres. Now, here’s a great piece of high tech kit that will help save lives. Until now, brake deceleration of this calibre has been restricted to slick-tyre racing vehicles. Although still under development, Conti’s technology transfer project took a year to reach the road test stage. The ’30-metre car’ project team used the group’s newly developed tyres and made modifications to the suspension and shock absorbers and added a new electrohydraulic brake. Information is exchanged among cross-linked systems. Not until all signals are linked is the optimum brake distance determined.

Figure 7 – How Conti technology saves lives leaving a 10 metre gap

  • A quick exit for F1 drivers. In the opposite direction, Lear Corp transferred technology from the roadway to the racetrack to design an extractable driver’s seat for Formula 1 racing. In the event of an accident, the seat design allows the injured driver to be removed from the wreckage up the three times faster than conventional methods to prevent injury and provide better stabilisation. The new design replaces the foam seat with a carbon fibre composite structural sheet supplemented with foam inserts to improve driver comfort and support.

Figure 8 – Lear’s F1 seat

  • Daytime running lights. Engineers at the German lighting group Hella have come up with a new energy saving ‘daytime running’ vehicle light, which requires twelve times less energy than using dipped beam during the day. Studies and field tests in Europe show that the use of daytime running lights can reduce the number of fatal accidents by up to 25%.

Figure 9 – Hella’s daytime running lights

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

Global market for automotive seating: Forecasts to 2010

Global tyre market intelligence set

Automotive lighting market intelligence set