New forms of mobility such as autonomous driving, car sharing and electromobility were hot topics at this year’s IAA show in Frankfurt. Adient, the world’s largest supplier of car seating, used the event to showcase its solutions for tomorrow’s interiors.  To find out more, we spoke to Richard Chung, Vice President, Innovation and Design, Advanced Product Development, Adient.

Could you tell us the headline message from your AI18 interior concept?

AI18 demonstrates our vision of future mobility and the impact to consumers in 2030 and beyond.

Our AI18 demonstrates our vision of future mobility and the impact to consumers in 2030 and beyond. This concept presents solutions for five key usage scenarios for autonomous vehicles, namely Lounge, Communication, Cargo, Baby plus, and Family. In Communication mode, for example, you can rotate the two front seats to face the rear seat occupants. If you are not driving then you do not have to sit right up against the steering wheel or the instrument panel. Instead, you may sit back and use a digital display table to control the functions of the vehicle.

Since the driver will become a rider, they may wish to use the additional time for more useful things. For instance, they could use it to have a consultation with their doctor.  We have seats that incorporate a heartbeat and breathing sensors and we will even incorporate a blood pressure sensor. As you travel, your doctor can monitor your health and vision thereby saving you more time.

If tomorrow’s mobility is about sharing cars, what does that mean for seats in terms of surface materials?

Below the surface we have developed a new product called Intellitech. It is less than 8mm thick. So it is a dramatic reduction in thickness. It is also 40% lighter than regular foam. That means it is lighter of course but it also enables the car makers to have a lighter body because if they have managed to shave it down to 8 mm from something like 100 mm then that can translate into shortening the body-in-white and yet still have the same room inside.

This translates into lighter weight and less production of CO2. And then regarding the surface skin on top of that, we have a new monofilament seat fabric. It is very durable and resilient for abrasion. It is even stronger than PVC. So for shared mobility situations it is ideal because it is easy to maintain; you do not need to replace the seat covers every now and then. So this fabric will not wear out as easily and it is easy to maintain.

Are you still using organic materials like coconut fibre?

We have been using coconut fibre in the packaging in some of our seats for premium customers for a long time. But then, of course, the technology of synthetic materials has eventually taken over but I think there are still opportunities. We are currently looking at back panels of a car seat using natural fibre materials. Our joint venture partner, YFAI, has an extensive portfolio of natural fibre products hence that is something that we can harness.

Although weight reduction is crucial if the auto industry is to meet the CAFÉ standards, is there a negative perception of thin seats amongst consumers?  How can you make seats thinner yet maintain seat integrity?

I think that is a bridge that we have to cross and have to communicate that effectively to the consumer. But there is no compromise either in comfort or safety. In fact, we have just announced today that we have a collaboration with Autoliv to advance seat safety of autonomous cars. Generally speaking, some people assume that with autonomous cars you do not need seatbelts or airbags but the opposite is actually true. In the case of the AI18, the seats rotate to some degree which has implications for the location and number of airbags required to protect the occupants.

Given the autonomous car seat will rotate to different positions, the complexity of the safety becomes exponentially greater.

What are your expectations of your joint venture with Autoliv?

Our expectation is that through our collaboration, we will find very innovative solutions for Levels 3 to 5 autonomous vehicles. But the message is that given the car seat will rotate to very different positions, the complexity of the safety becomes exponentially greater.

We understand that for car manufacturers as well as their suppliers, individualisation is a growth market that offers great potential for differentiation. How is Adient responding to that?

At IAA 2017 we show new trim technologies and various trims that we have developed for the premium car market as well as the regular market. So we have vertical integration capabilities of providing customisable trim covers for seats. This includes inkjet printing capabilities so that you can actually order your own pattern when you order your car.

Do you see more use of alternative materials such as carbon fibre in seat manufacture or even aluminium?

We are looking at multiple materials right now. We are not looking so much at aluminium but we do have a magnesium seat frame here on display. We are also looking carefully at composites. What we have done is combined composites with glass fibre so we have harvested the efficiency of mass production – so it takes less time to make the part – and minimising the carbon fibre to the precise areas where it is needed for structural purposes but not the entire shell. That means we have the efficiency of the structure and combine it with the manufacturing capability.

So while you are using magnesium and carbon fibre, you are doing so minimally due to cost?

We have optimised the cost – and we continue to work on that – in order to get it more applicable for the OEM customers. So we are looking at it from a total system point of view as we wanted to be as close as possible to today’s price but it depends on what you want to produce in what volumes and where you want to produce it. As a mass-market producer, we always have to think about a solution that is applicable for volume. This still includes high strength steels by the way.

Some people suffer from motion sickness. How are you addressing that in seats?

We do not have the complete answer yet. I understand how it happens and why it happens but how to solve it completely, we do not have the answer yet. There are two ways to do it. One is a vehicle based, i.e. suspension based. The other one is the seat based, i.e. reducing all the vibrations coming up from the vehicle body and minimising it. But we do not want to get rid of all the vibrations because that then introduces different sensations of you not being in a car. So we want to have some familiar motions without those that create motion sickness. So we understand the range but now we are working on various ways to reduce that. We are not yet ready to talk about it but maybe next year.

We understand that Adient is to acquire the seating supplier Futuris. Is it fair to say that this acquisition does not really bring any new technologies or capabilities that Adient lacks, but it does offer more exposure to Asia and add some customers to your roster?

Yes, Asia and our West Coast customers. We now have the full range of business with customers like Tesla – so that really gives us a great leverage.

I guess you are always looking for technical tie-ups. Looking at your business as a matrix of technologies, are there any gaps?

Yes, there are gaps. It is actually a transcendent of our OEM customers as well so that is why you see a lot of partnerships and alliances between OEMs and tech businesses. We have to do the same and Autoliv is a first step. But in the future you will see more collaboration from us. But we cannot go into more details at this point.

See also Global light vehicle seating market – forecasts to 2032