As part of just-auto’s bi-annual review of seating technologies, Matthew Beecham followed-up his talks with Lear Corp executives by submitting some written questions. Don Bernhardt, Vice President, Central Engineering for Seat Systems and Terri Tahnoose, Director, Consumer Research, Lear Corp, kindly responded, highlighting some findings of the company’s most recent consumer survey.

Just-auto: What has your consumer research told you about seating requirements and preferences in North America? How does it differ between age groups?

Lear: “When asked if they would trade comfort for the ability to reconfigure the rear seat in their vehicle, consumers who took part in the recent Lear Seating Functionality Survey [US and EU, April 2006] indicated that seating comfort was nearly equal in importance when compared to the ability to reconfigure their seat. This finding has significantly impacted Lear’s dynamic development process for optimal seats that exceed both consumer requirements.

Just over half of consumers would not trade comfort for the ability to reconfigure their seats in the US and EU – The significant split between the ‘Yes‘ and ‘No’ responses indicates a strong desire for a seating product that can offer both features

“Consumers identified several key factors that have enabled Lear to develop the optimal seat solutions including the number one reason behind the purchase of their current vehicle [excluding price] was transporting people/cargo. In relation to that, the top three reasons US consumers reconfigure their vehicles include hauling personal items (75%), hauling home improvement items (58%) and running errands (46%). Within those categories Lear found that groceries/grocery bags (87%) are the number one item that consumers transport in their vehicle on a daily or weekly basis.

“Significant insights were captured with regard to the type of seat a consumer may prefer in both the second and third row of their vehicle. Specific to the second row of a vehicle, consumers indicated Captains Chairs (29%) and a 60/40 Spilt Seat (24%) are the top two types of seats. While a third row 50/50 Spilt Seat (36%) is most preferred, it is closely followed by a 60/40 Split Seat (23%).

“In an effort to expand seat development guidelines beyond the traditional demographic composition like gender and age, Lear benefits from an examination of life stage to hone in on a vehicle segments need set. An assessment of life stage will uncover the vehicle usage associated with a person’s day-to-day life. Lear finds that this information is invaluable when developing specific seating options that will resonate with the vehicle buying public.”

Just-auto: Will seating reconfigurability mean seats with more mechanisms, very thin, low profile seats?

Lear: “As far as the examples listed i.e. mechanisms, very thin, low profile, this is only one aspect of reconfigurability. In addition reconfigurability falls under flexibility in the sense of how the seat interacts with the overall vehicle. For instance, utilising Haptics [sense of touch], the seat can now be configured into an alert system that can alert the driver if the vehicle is varying out of its lane. The identification to the driver is in the form of vibrating the seat. In addition this technology can be used as a comfort option like massage that can help occupants eliminate the fatigue experienced during long trips.”

Just-auto: As drivers get bigger, how has that influenced your seat designs?

Lear: “In regards to seat design contours, a vast majority of bolster designs seems to be less pronounced in recent years. Although we still have vehicles with pronounced contours, these vehicles tend to be the sporty vehicles in our customers portfolios. However, this trend is not the result of bigger drivers. This trend can be linked to the over all wear of the seat cover. We have found that a less aggressive bolster height provides increased performance for the seat cover.

“In regards to structure design, the industry’s design criteria is based on fifth percent female, fiftieth percent male and ninety fifth percentile male. This criteria represents the general population. In addition all structures are required to meet all FMVSS and do carry requirements specified by our customers.”

Just-auto: These days, I guess SUV and minivans buyers want theirseats to feel just as comfortable as the front seats, too?

Lear: “Consumers Lear surveyed in both the US and Europe placed almost equal importance on the ability to reconfigure as well as comfort. To achieve improved comfort, many features that were considered front-row-only options like seat recline, fore/aft, heated/cooled, and lumbar adjust are now migrating to the second row of these vehicles.”

Just-auto: What have advances have you made to rear seats for these vehicles?

“Thin-Profile Folding Rear Seat
Lear’s Thin-Profile Folding Rear Seat utilizes a patented folding spring suspension achieving a 100-120mm folded height without sacrificing second- or third-row comfort. It is simple to use, offers side support and provides increased storage space in the cargo area.

Cushion Tilt 2nd Row
Lear’s Cushion Tilt 2nd Row seat offers increased comfort for mid- and sports car segment. The mechanical cushion tilt allows continuous cushion adjustment for improved comfort, and the one-hand operation is easy to use.

Remote Release 2nd Row Easy EntryTM
Lear’s Remote Release 2nd Row Easy Entry is an industry-first. By pushing a button, the second-row seats automatically fold up allowing easier accessibility to the third-row seats. This parallel actuation system uses remotely located switches which are only active when the vehicle is in ‘park’ and the mechanical interlocks only allow the seat to be placed in specific design positions for safe operation.

The SmartFoldTM release system is a low-effort automatic release mechanism for folding seat systems powered by Lear’s unique SmartFold™ Actuator stored energy device. With the SmartFold™ Manual Release the seat folding mechanism can be activated from the seat or from the side trim, door, trunk or lift-gate without the need for power or electronics.

Slouch Seating Technology provides exceptional comfort for rear seat passengers. This new feature has adjustable cushions that allow for up to 100mm of adjustment in the second row seats of cars/pickups/wagons. Many vehicles today do not have the option to recline due to the rear cab wall (in pickups) or rear shelf (in cars). The Slouch seat mechanism provides this needed flexibility in 50/50, 60/40, and 40/20/40 configurations. Options include power seats with heat/cool/massage, individual seats move independently, and seat buckles that move with seat/occupant.”

Just-auto: Striking a balance among automotive seating features – such as light weight, comfort, safety and functionality – is no easy task. How do you approach that, balancing all the factors yet ensuring a safe, comfortable seat?

Lear: “Integrating different types of materials into a seat structure to obtain light weight seating still requires FMVSS and due care compliance. We rely on computer-aided analysis that is correlated with physical testing. This data is used to develop safe comfortable seat components. Today we use a variety of light weight and environmental friendly materials to obtain both strong frame systems and comfortable seats. To mention a few examples of light weight materials include aluminum, magnesium, injection/ blow molded plastics, EPP (expanded poly propylene) and EPE (expanded poly ethylene) have been used in seat structure.”

See also: Global market review of vehicle seating – forecasts to 2012