Jump into any new car today and it is likely to be more supportive, versatile and pleasant to sit in than last year’s model with a multitude of hidden creature comforts. Matthew Beecham reports on some recent seating innovations.

Thinner seats–

Seats are also becoming lighter by as much as 50%. This paradox is achieved through novel designs using new materials, foams and assembly mechanisms. Yet customer perception of the car’s interior is paramount.  “There are a number of trends which are reflected in the OEM demands,” said Philippe Aumont, vice president, product planning, Faurecia,   “One is related to perceived quality, i.e. how the user will perceive the vehicle interior.  In terms of seating, there is a strong push on everything related to usage.  So operating effort, easy entry to the second and third row seats, and modularity such as how to fold flat is very topical. Another trend relates to what we call ‘life on board’.  This focuses on the perceived spaciousness of the vehicle’s interior and, among other things, looks for new ways to accommodate storage solutions. As far as creating that perceived spaciousness is concerned, we have an important role to help the OEMs manage that space.  In that respect, thinner seats are a clear market trend.  At the same time, we must maintain the perceived safety or robustness of the seat.  So as a tier one integrator, we are playing an important role with the OEMs to optimise the usage of space within the interior, which is true with seats but also within cockpits and all the interior components.”

–with more flexibility–

While thinner seats will add crucial space inside smaller cars, the ability to transform the cabin to suit different needs remains a hot topic in the sport utility and minivans segments. As consumers demand more flexibility from their vehicles, suppliers must find yet more novel ways to collapse the rear seat rows. Most work is focused on folding seats into the floor and roof. “Basically, the need for roominess is threefold,” said Imtiyaz Syed, vice president, engineering, Intier Automotive Seating.  “One is occupant comfort, particularly for the rear seats; they want more knee or foot room so the second row and third row must be as comfortable as the front row seats.  The second need for roominess is the ability to add features, whether they are safety or comfort features.  The third need is to create a large storage and cargo space.”

Intier’s recent seating innovations include its so-called Fold and Tumble family of seating mechanisms which allow for additional storage space as well as easier passenger entry by automatically moving the seat to the full rear track position as the seat tumbles to the stowed position.  It also offers a modular seat with an elastomeric support structure which is lighter and thinner.  The company’s Generation III stow-in-floor seating typifies the current trend for being able to easily collapse seats when not needed yet ensure they are comfortable when in use.

So just how much further can seating reconfigurability go?  “I think that so far we have seen [reconfigurability] focused larger vehicles such as SUVs and minivans,” said Randy Koenigsknecht, vice president, sales & marketing, Intier Automotive Seating.  “But you will see it happening in smaller vehicles, even B class segment cars.  Here, the [consumer] expectation is that these are no longer economy boxes but must have good feature content levels with additional functions.  So I think you will continue to see both an extrapolation of features available [in larger vehicles] but also the same type of features in smaller vehicles.”

Consumers are increasingly seeking added flexibility with seating systems, particularly with second- and third-row configurations, where ease of movement and efficient, out-of-the-way stowage is a plus. “The trend for removable seats has definitely disappeared,” added Aumont.  “That approach was far too complex and put the burden on the driver to store those seats somewhere else.  A clear trend these days is to have more mechanisms that are easier to use for the end-user and that requires less operating effort  The next step is the generalisation of powered solutions.”

–added comfort–

Though modern car seats are more comfortable and safer than ever before, flexibility, comfort and safety continue to be the main drivers of this business. Developments in vehicle seating have been taking place faster than may be apparent on the surface. OEMs are demanding greater differentiation in their seat designs, customers want more luxury such as cooling and heating, and ergonomists are understanding more and more about what the human frame needs in order to be comfortable. Aside from seating ergonomics, a great deal of work is focused on different seat fabrics, creating more breathable or more waterproof surfaces, and even adding built-in fragrances designed to increase feelings of well-being. Indeed, the rising demand for SUVs on both sides of the Atlantic has brought with it a surge in demand for seat heaters.  Today, 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.  Johnson Controls has developed a new climate control solution for seats. After offering a range of active ventilation systems for the upper segment, as well as passive climate systems, the company has now extended its portfolio to include a prototype for active seat ventilation in the medium vehicle segment.

–and higher levels of safety content

Although rear-end collisions are rarely fatal, they result in one-quarter of all personal injuries. Damage to the neck arising from a sharp backwards rotation of the head is known as the ‘whiplash effect’. Research studies indicate that whiplash injuries alone account for about 35% of all vehicle collision injuries and cost about US$20 billion annually in North America and Europe.  While US motor vehicle regulations pertaining to occupant head restraints have gone unchanged for about two decades, a new mandate (FMVS 202A) has been introduced which is designed to improve head restraints to minimize potential whiplash injuries in low speed(10-15 mph) rear end collisions.  As a result, all the main seating makers are busy developing their own solutions to meet the mandate.  Manufacturers may choose the static or dynamic option in order to comply with FMVS202A. The static option involves positioning the restraint closer to the driver’s head.  This type of restraint must also incorporate some type of internal structure, such as a plastic core, for better support. 

Although most head restraints in North American cars are indeed ‘static’, they must be re-designed accordingly.  On the flipside, the dynamic head restraint involves designing a mechanism in the seat that, in the event of a rear-end collision, activates the head restraint, moving it closer to the seat occupant’s head as its thrusts rearward.  The rule applies to front seats of all vehicles produces from 1 September 2008.  Manufacturers must also ensure that rear seats comply with the ruling from 1 September 2010.

To meet the new federal requirements, Lear Corp is offering its second generation self-aligning dynamic head restraint, dubbed ProTec PluS.  The PluS system uses the seat occupant’s pelvis, lumbar and shoulders to extend the activation time to improve head support. 

“Our original ProTec system, which was launched in a Saab 9-5 vehicle in 1998, was activated by the occupant’s shoulders penetrating the seat back in a rear crash situation,” said Gerry Locke, director of safety engineering, Lear.  “That force activates the head restraint, moving it upwards and forwards in order to minimize whiplash injuries.  When the initial proposal for FMVS202A emerged, we started testing our original ProTec system to see how well it would perform to the new requirements. While it had the potential to pass FMVS202A, we didn’t feel comfortable with the safety margin for compliance. Rather than come up with a completely different system, we set about making our original system better.  To achieve that, we re-designed it so it was activated by the occupant’s pelvis and lumbar region.  The pelvis/lumbar region penetration into the seat back is more independent of seat yielding that may move the shoulder region of the seat back rearward and limit activation. That allows the head restraint to remain in the upward and forward position for a longer period of time to provide enough additional head support to surpass the FMVS202A requirements.”

Meanwhile, Faurecia has also been busy developing anti-whiplash solutions. “For a number of years, we have been selling a passive anti-whiplash solution,” said Aumont.  “We are now developing an active head restraint system.  In the event of a rear-end collision, the head restraint is activated by a crash signal, not the occupant’s body. We plan to introduce that active anti-whiplash system, within the next two or three years.”

In the final analysis, demand for novel seating technology shows no signs of easing up proving that innovation, not vehicle production, will drive the market value of the automotive seat business.

Matthew Beecham

Research:  Global market review of vehicle seating – forecasts to 2012