The three megatrends impacting the global automotive industry, namely fuel efficiency, individualisation and autonomous driving, strongly influence the shape and form of tomorrow’s car seat. Continuing just-auto’s series of research snapshots – pulled from its automotive research platform, QUBE – this one takes a closer look at some innovative approaches to car seat design.

Lighter and thinner seats

Fuel efficiency and CO2 requirements can only really be achieved with weight reduction. Hence the relentless push for lightweighting has led to the novel use of alternative, advanced and even organic materials in designing seats.

Individuation of seating is another growing trend, keeping interior designers mindful of aspects such as customisation, x-covers and niche products but all based on global platforms.

In developing its seating products, Faurecia is marking itself out as a leader in lightweight technology. Geoffroy de Grandmaison, marketing director of Faurecia, elaborated on its so-called Lightweight & Roominess seat concept to just-auto: “This seat features our short term proposals to improve lightweight and roominess. We have selected as a reference the driver seat of a Nissan Rogue (SOP 2013). The complete seat is a six way manual seat, mid height point, that weighs 18 kg. It features our CMF1 frame, which weighs just 12 kg, which is a 20 percent improvement compared to the previous generation. It features our own acclaimed mechanisms and mechatronics. The frame is produced on our generic lines installed across the world which allow producing specific frames for different automakers on the same line.”

In terms of the seat structure, there is greater use of aluminium (or steel and aluminium combined) in manufacturing both the front or rear seats. Dr Detlef Jurss, group vice president and general manager seating components, Johnson Controls Automotive Seating, believes that the focus of the multi-material approach is to increase the share of light materials such as glass fibre reinforced plastic, carbon, aluminium or magnesium mix – and to combine it all with the newest bonding technologies. He explained to just-auto: “But the race is also on for super high strength steel combined with innovative manufacturing processes. In any case technology still has a huge potential for weight saving. Depending on the approach we can save from 10 to 40 percent of weight.”

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As manufacturers attempt to add more features and create greater interior space in the small car segment, designers and material suppliers are being urged to come up with new ideas, such as slimline seats.  While thinner seats will add crucial space inside smaller cars, the ability to transform the cabin to suit different needs remains topical as we move closer into the autonomous driving age.  Although interior trim is by no means a high-technology product, the technical boundaries are being pushed back to improve appearance, save weight, enhance safety, simplify installation and above all cut cost.

Climate controlled seats

Heated seats typically work by heating coils embedded in the seat.  The technology itself is similar to that used in hair dryers and electric blankets.  While heated seats are available on a number of models, climate-controlled seats are gradually appearing. There are, of course, a number of different technologies being used to create a cooled seat.

For its part, Lear Corp recently entered into a strategic partnership with Tempronics, acquiring a minority equity stake, and exclusive rights to its thermoelectric car seat heating and cooling technology. “This partnership will provide Lear with the ability to heat and cool seats faster utilising less energy than any other system available today,” said Ray Scott, Lear’s president of seating.

Rear seat innovations

Rear seating has also been a focus for innovation.  Johnson Controls worked with Volvo Cars to supply seats on the flagship Volvo S90 launched this year. In addition to the seat covers and upholstery for all the Volvo S90’s seats, the supplier developed the rear seat bench. “The design of the rear seats is closely based on the driver seat, and is in no way inferior in terms of comfort. Since all of the stages of development and integration were in our hands, we were able to create a holistic seating experience, not only through the high quality of the seats, but the optimal use of interior space,” explained Tony Malila, vice president and general manager, customer group Volvo, at Johnson Controls Automotive Seating. “In a vehicle’s interior, space is the greatest luxury. Volvo Cars recognised this and consciously applied it to the Volvo S90. While the front seats offer the highest degree of comfort, they take up relatively little space, primarily due to their extremely slim backrests. This allowed for plenty of legroom for the rear passengers. Our aim in designing and integrating the rear seat bench was to support Volvo’s approach in this area.”

Smarter seating

There is a lot of talk these days about the autonomous car and the future of driving. “Future seats will become an even more active safety system – much more than today,” added Jurss.  “The seat will be an integral part of passenger protection, linked to all active safety systems of the vehicle. Additional seat functions such as the option to rotate the direction of the seat to allow direct communication with other passengers, or a seat in a reclined relaxation position, must provide maximum crash safety.”

Swamy Kotagiri, chief technology officer of Magna International, agreed that the seating fitted inside a self-driving car will look and feel different. He told just-auto: “As we look ahead – even beyond the point of the autonomous car with these advanced features – it will change how the seat looks. A car will, therefore, become an extension of your living room. Since you have time that you are not completely focused on driving – so you want to read something, or recline your seat – then the functional attributes of the seat will change.”

Given the move towards autonomous driving, we can also expect some changes in the seating layout. The Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion research car presents a useful glimpse at what such a layout might look like. It features a variable seating system with four motorised swivel chairs. Such futuristic seating reconfigurations – either in the semi- or fully-autonomous driving mode – will also have implications for the position of certain airbags.

Another concept along the lines of a ‘mobile living space’ is Volvo’s Concept 26, named to reflect the average daily commute to work of 26 minutes. It is designed to allow the vehicle occupants to use this time as they wish when they cannot be bothered to drive.  The concept features a Johnson Controls’ seat design that ‘cradles’ the driver, depending on the mode selected, namely: Drive, Create or Relax. For instance, press the Relax button and the steering wheel retracts, driver seat reclines and a large display emerges from the dashboard allowing the driver to actually enjoy their daily commute. Imagine …

Kinetic seats

And finally, Lexus used a corner of its booth at the most recent Paris motor show to reveal a funky-looking ‘kinetic seat‘ that brings fresh thinking to car seat design. In humans, the spine acts to stabilise the head. It allows the pelvis and chest to rotate in opposite directions, stabilising the movement of the head even while walking or jogging. In order to recreate this movement in car seats, the seat cushion and back rest have been designed to move kinetically with occupant weight and external forces. Thus, simply sitting in the seat helps stabilise head movement caused by vehicle motion, keeping the field of vision steady. The bright orange metal seat frame ‘upholstery’ comprises a spider web-pattern net with threads that spread out radially from the centre of the back rest. The net is sufficiently flexible to closely fit body shape, dispersing the load to make it possible to sit comfortably for prolonged periods. Whatever next?

See also: Global light vehicle seating market – forecasts to 2031