Smart cars need smart seats

Suppliers in unlikely markets are finding themselves developing systems that cooperate with self-driving car technology. Freddie Holmes learns from several Tier 1 suppliers how this is affecting the design of car seats

Gone are the days where basic cloth upholstery and manual adjustment was the accepted norm for automotive seating. Along with a rising demand for premium materials, electronic controls and greater degrees of adjustment, rising levels of vehicle autonomy are set to overhaul the way car seats function as part of the interior – but is it fair to suggest that seats are becoming smart?

This is exactly the case, says Philippe Aumont, Chief Technical Officer of Faurecia Automotive Seating. He observes that three key megatrends will continue to spur the integration of additional functionality: car attractiveness, occupant monitoring and autonomous driving.

Faurecia Ecran controle

As Ray Scott, President of Seating at Lear, told this writer during a visit to the supplier’s Michigan headquarters, innovation in automotive seating is registering something of a renaissance. “I’ve been in seating for 20 years, and it is amazing where it is coming to; it is probably one of the fastest changing parts of the vehicle, aside from autonomous driving technology, but it fits in perfectly with that.” Karl Henn, Engineering Director at Lear, added: “You can do a lot with the seat, it is changing a lot, and it is going to change quickly.”

Andreas Wolf, Head of Continental’s Body & Security business unit, notes that thanks to sophisticated electronic and pneumatic systems, “car seats are definitely becoming smarter.” Andreas Maashoff, Director of Industrial Design and Craftsmanship and Consumer and Market Research at Johnson Controls Automotive Seating (JCI), agrees that seating will indeed warrant the definition of ‘smart’. He suggests that smart seating could feature ‘smart’ materials that offer climate and stain resistance, as well as ‘smart’ functions through various electrical and mechanical adjustments and sensors.

Three key megatrends will continue to spur the integration of additional functionality: car attractiveness, occupant monitoring and autonomous driving

Sitting comfortably? You will be…

Continental provides the controls for diverse electric adjustments (green) as well as for seat climatisation (red), and realises massage (blue), seat-contour (blue), memory, and numerous safety functions

Contrary to popular belief, most drivers do not know best when it comes to sitting comfortably. Suppliers have been working closely with chiropractors and ergonomics specialists to develop adjustment settings that place the driver into the best possible position. This will not only improve comfort, but also the long-term health of the driver.

JCI’s Maashoff explains that the most obvious reasons for deploying such sensors in car seats – both for the driver and passengers – is to allow the seat to “sense occupant biometrics for an initial ‘best-practice’ seat position when sitting down.” He agreed that this can “improve comfort through electrical or mechanical adjustments, or active health functions such as massage, lumbar support, heating or cooling.” Continental’s Wolf echoes this view. “Modern car seats make driving comfortable, relaxed and safe,” he says. “This helps to promote not only the occupants’ well-being, but also their health.”

Faurecia is developing solutions to monitor what it calls ‘driver status’. In September 2015, the supplier revealed its Active Wellness seating platform that can detect drowsiness, stress, and then offer alerts and comfort adjustments. “Drowsiness is a major cause of fatal accidents, especially in North America, where long trips are frequent,” explains Aumont. “Stress makes you take wrong decisions. Informing the driver on his status, and suggesting that he is at risk will improve safety.” He advises that combining drowsiness detection with automatic emergency braking (AEB) would also improve safety.

Informing the driver on his status, and suggesting that he is at risk will improve safety

Lear’s intelligent seat – dubbed InTu – is due to hit the road in 2018 in a premium US sedan. Ahead of its release, we tested a prototype version of the seat in various driving scenarios around Detroit, Michigan. A sensor mat embedded within the seat reads the driver’s anthropometric frame – back and torso and legs – and continually adjusts to the driver’s sitting position. “After you have been on the road for a duration of time, you move – it’s natural – and the seat will move with you,” says Lear’s Scott. Employees use this prototype vehicle around six days a week, and cover thousands of miles each month to gather data.

Henn points out that this seat is “about physical connectivity, and the seat is the only place where you have physical connectivity with the vehicle all of the time.” Lear has observed that a significant amount of valuable information is passed between the occupant and the seat sensors – size, shape, weight, biometrics and even heart rates. “We are in a unique position to be able to collect that information, analyse it, and then use it to do something useful for the person sitting in that car,” he explains. “When I sit down, I don’t want to be fiddling with switches and knobs and a whole keyboard of buttons. We want a product that intuitively knows what to do, and when to do it.”

From automatic to autonomous

More than 80% of automotive seats in the world are manually operated by the driver. For cost reasons, this percentage will remain high, says Faurecia’s Aumont. “In any case, smart seating growth will keep surpassing market growth, to help occupants to better converge towards their best comfort scenario,” he says. “Fully automatic is not what consumers are looking for; they want to remain the final decision maker, except for emergency, or in pre-crash circumstances,” he adds.

Continental’s Wolf observes that car seats already offer a wide range of comfort and safety functions, but although memory functions offer automatic adjustment, the seat currently does not react autonomously during the entire driving scenario. “Seat positions can be stored and retrieved by saving the seat setting either in the vehicle, or in the vehicle’s starter key. Using this approach, the seat will automatically adjust to the driver’s preferred position, when he or she unlocks the vehicle,” explains Wolf. In future, however, he expects seats to actively communicate with drivers as part of a ‘holistic human-machine interface (HMI)’ in order to supply important information, such as warnings.

The seat is the only place where you have physical connectivity with the vehicle all of the time

With vehicles becoming increasingly automated, the driver will be able to perform tasks that do not require hands on the wheel, or eyes on the road. This opens up a number of opportunities – and the seat needs to be able to adapt to the driver’s new-found freedom within the car. “We are looking at how you can turn the seat around 180 degrees so the driver could do some reading,” says Lear’s Scott. “But you also need to be able to quickly turn and get back to driving. These are great discussions, because it all centres around the seat.”

Following an extended period of automated driving, the car seat could also provide haptic or audio feedback in order to alert the driver to an event that requires the driver to regain control. The intensity of such feedback would vary depending on the degree of danger – an imminent crash situation would not elicit a gentle vibration, for example, but a harsh warning to quickly gain the driver’s attention. “Car seats can make an important contribution to automated driving, as a driver could be alerted to particular situations by a vibrating seat,” affirms Continental’s Wolf.

Intelligent seating is not simply a frivolous technology to entice new buyers, but absolutely vital for the success of the driverless car

“Automatic adjustment can prepare for crash situations, and sensors can even restrain adjustments in specific driving situations,” adds JCI’s Maashoff. For example, he says the sensors may not allow drivers to lie flat in a sleeping position or sit at 90 degrees to the driving direction until the scenario is deemed safe for autonomous mode to resume.

Faurecia’s Aumont notes several points that need to be monitored by the seat in the case of autonomous driving. “Is the seat in the right driving position, and is the driver too drowsy to take over the wheel?” he asks. Ultimately, he affirms that intelligent seating is not simply a frivolous technology to entice new buyers, but absolutely vital for the success of the driverless car. “There will be no autonomous driving scenario without a connected seat!” he warns.

This article appeared in the Q2 2016 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.