As vehicle interior suppliers push back the technical boundaries by developing novel fabrics and acoustic materials with more functionality, Matthew Beecham wonders if we'll appreciate the difference.

It can help keep you cool on long journeys, weigh and cost a fraction of upmarket alternative solutions and will appeal to the small car segment.  Shown for the first time at the Paris motor show last year, Johnson Controls EcoClimate seat features a ventilation system without the use of fans.  It uses 'breathable' materials embedded inside the seat cushions and backrest to absorb moisture. It was designed especially for entry-level cars and vehicles in the small to lower medium segments and will be marketed as a cheaper solution to more expensive active seat ventilation systems. A spokeswoman for the company told us that negotiations with a European vehicle maker are now at an advanced stage and, although no deal is yet on the table, would expect the EcoClimate seat to enter production next year.

The EcoClimate seat
Source: Johnson Controls

In the small car sector, space matters.  But for years, chunky seats have taken up a lot of the room.  To get round the problem, Johnson Controls are also developing slimline seats.  "We have been conducting some developments in-house, independent of the OEM," said Hugues Gall, senior product manager of the company's seating division based in Burscheid, Germany.  But making seats thinner can compromise comfort, strength and safety. For these reasons, the company says there is still some way to go before slimline seats can enter volume production.  "In my opinion, it would not happen before 2006," said Gall.

While thinner seats will add crucial space inside smaller cars, the ability to transform the cabin to suit different needs a hot topic in the sport utility segment.  Magna International's Intier Automotive has developed a flexible interior for Saturn's VUE SUV.  By pushing a few levers, the right rear and front passenger seats can be folded flat allowing for things like skis and ladders to slide in easily with the boot shut. Each section of the rear seat, split into 70/30 can be folded flat providing some 1785-litres of cargo space. The outboard rear seats have adjustable head restraints, while the optional leather seats have manual lumbar control and temperature control.

The boundaries are also being stretched in the vehicle acoustics arena.  Acoustics in vehicles used to mean stuffing as much insulation as possible into a door panel to make the interior quiet.  But now the accent is on making a statement about a car's quality. And the arrival of telematics, entertainment systems and cell phones give carmakers yet more reasons to deaden sound entering the cabin. To help them achieve it, Lear has developed an acoustical system which is some 60% lighter in weight with better noise reduction capability than conventional designs.  Lear's patented design covers its family of SonoTec products, a lightweight barrier material made from recycled carpet.  The material is currently being used as a dashboard insulator by General Motors in vehicles made by its Saturn division. The invention also caught the eye of the panel of experts judging the Auto Interiors 2001 Design and Technology Awards; Lear won first prize.

Since being bought-out in 1989, Michigan-based floor and wall-coverings manufacturer Collins & Aikman has re-positioned itself as a specialist automotive carpets, acoustics and plastics supplier. But with the acquisition of Becker Plastics (adding plastic tooling and automotive plastics), Joan Automotive Fabrics and Textron's automotive trim business, Collins & Aikman has doubled its revenues, added $1 billion worth of new business through 2005 and expanded its global footprint that includes over 120 facilities and more than 25,000 employees on three continents.  The company has also been busy developing a family of acoustic products. The company claims its so-called Acoustically Tuned (AcT) range of technologies can be 'custom tuned' to meet specific vehicle profiles.  For example, its AcTfoam can be used to create a sprayed barrier of polyurethane, creating variable thickness which allows mass to be applied to the acoustical 'hot spots' around the car.  Claimed benefits include up to 70% less weight compared to conventional barrier products. 

But acoustics is not just about laying better quality carpets or inventing better ways of applying foam.  An acoustic system takes into account everything in the cabin, from the dashboard to package trays.  The trend is toward lighter, porous, sound absorbing materials and dampening materials.  They must be recyclable, too.  In addition to seats, cockpits, doors, front ends and exhaust systems, the French group Faurecia supplies acoustic packages for vehicle interiors.  They include a range of soft trim parts such as floor mats, package trays and luggage compartment trim to soundproofing systems such as under-carpet insulators.  One of its latest eco-friendly material innovations is called 'sommold' (a mixture of polypropylene and fibreglass) which has a fully validated recycling process.  The rear package trays inside the Ford Fiesta and Fusion models are made from sommold.  Faurecia also uses the material to produce an all-in-one plastic floor that is claimed to save 20% in both weight and manufacturing cost. The plastic component specialist, Sommer-Allibert, which Faurecia bought in 2000, originally developed Sommold.

Expert Analysis

The Global Market for Automotive Interiors
This new and exclusive report from just-auto.com provides a detailed analysis of recent developments within the global vehicle interiors sector.

Supplier relationship tables provide hard to find data on who supplies whom for the automotive interiors sector. The last section of the report includes company profiles on the major automotive interior players including Faurecia, JCI, Lear, Magna and Collins and Aikman. Find out more here.

 
One of the growth areas in car seating is the child seat. Research shows that 50% of children traveling in cars along European roads are inadequately protected. In the US, recent child restraint inspections revealed that at least four of five children are not buckled up correctly and 80% to 90% of child safety seats are installed or used incorrectly. There are, however, two key factors that impede the effective use of child safety systems. The first is that many child safety seats are difficult to handle and install so that many parents abandon the whole idea. The second relates to the simple fact that children are reluctant to remain seated in a seat that is too constraining.

In a bid to make things easier, a new federal law swung into force last September requiring that all new vehicles and child safety seats have attachments called LATCH, or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. LATCH is designed in such a way that it makes easier to fit the child seats firmly in all newly manufactured vehicles.  It has tethers, which prevent a child from whipping forward during an accident. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the LATCH system could help in avoiding 36-50 deaths and about 3,000 injuries every year. Manufacturers, a few safety advocates and parents have expressed support for the new system, although some other safety advocates have criticised that LATCH anchors are difficult to find in the seat upholstery and also may not be adequate for toddlers heavier than 50 pounds.  At NHTSA's press event to launch the product, a spokesman reassuringly added: "Even the most dedicated and knowledgeable parent has had difficulty with this.  Whether it's the failure to buckle the child snugly to the seat or to buckle the seat snugly into the vehicle seat, there are technological challenges and this technology really does eliminate those challenges." Great idea but will it really latch on?