Rethinking car seat designs


Jenny Hung
12/15/2017

In the suburbs of Vancouver, Canada, a high-tech firm is quietly working on visualization and predictive modeling using virtual and augmented reality technology. Its methods and products are being integrated into Microsoft's HoloLens, which is, in turn, being used to redesign Ford trucks and passenger vehicles . Ford has started equipping its design engineers with Microsoft HoloLens. Outfitted with the holographic goggles, these Detroit denizens can stand in front of clay models of cars and see 3D vehicle elements digitally overlaid onto them, so they can quickly evaluate and alter new car designs.

In fact, Ford is not the only company reaping the fast rewards of AI-enabled virtual reality technology. The same company in Vancouver is becoming the first company in the world to successfully integrate mixed reality into an industrial workflow for our client, global medium and heavy-duty truck design and manufacturer PACCAR (the parent company of Kenworth, Peterbilt, DAF and Leyland Trucks) .

The shift in product design paradigm is here. And AI-enabled mixed reality or augmented reality holds the key.

THE TRENDS THAT SET THE STAGE: CAR-SHARING AND SELF-DRIVING CARS

The nature of our relationships with our cars is changing. In self-driving cars, we must rethink how we carry ourselves in cars in a different way. Cars are turning into a lounge on wheels, and it is no longer necessary for riders to face forward all the time. In an autonomous car, the riders’ activities are more akin to those in an aircraft. Resting, reading, conversing. And the seats in this environment would have to be considered in a brand new way. 

According to the most recent PwC report , more than 40% of Millennials have used, and will continue to use car-sharing services; approx. two-thirds believe that self-driving cars are safer and are eagerly looking forward to the point when the technology becomes affordable. As car-sharing becomes a reality, and as driverless cars become prevalent, consumers’ attention shifts from looking for engineering superiority to interior superiority. This does not mean the consumers care any less about solid engineering and excellent handling of their cars - it's just that the superior qualities in the engineering aspects are now taken for granted. As we spend more time in cars, while not personally driving, we start to notice things that we didn't before.

seating

Similarly, when we get to places in more shared vehicles, the issues of seats become more pronounced.

If you need further proof that consumers attention is shifting towards the seats, look no further. J.D. Power 2017 Seat Quality and Satisfaction Study  clearly provides convincing evidence that there is an inverse relationship between consumer satisfaction and the number of reported seat problems per 100 vehicles. Among the market segments examined, not surprisingly, luxury cars and luxury SUV have the lowest number of reported seat problems, and mass market midsize cars and large SUV have the most problems in seat design. 

In the luxury car segment, the top scorer was Magna (0 PP100), which supplies seats for the Audi A3. Toyota Boshoku Corp.’s seats for the Lexus RC received a score of 2.7 PP100; in a tie for third, with 3.4 PP100, are Lear Corp.’s seats for the Audi A6 and Porsche 911, and Toyota Boshoku’s seats for the Lexus GS.

In mass market compact cars, Lear achieves the best score with 3.3 PP100 for its Chevrolet Cruze seats. TS Tech’s Honda Civic seats score 4.2 PP100; Delta Kyogo’s Mazda MX-5 Miata seats score 4.4 PP100.

Adient wins the luxury SUV category, too, scoring only 0.8 PP100 for its Porsche Cayenne seats. Lear comes second, with 2.0 PP100 for its BMW X4 seats, while TS tech wins third place with 2.3 PP100 for its Acura RDX seats.

In the mass market compact SUV/MPV segment, Magna’s Ford Escape seats take the prize, with 3.1 PP100. Lear (Hyundai Tucson) and TS Tech (Honda CR-V) tie for second with 4.1 PP 100.

Magna also wins the mass market midsize/large SUV award for its Ford Edge seats (5.8 PP100), while Toyota Bosoku takes both second and third for its work with the Toyota Highlander (6.7 PP100) and Toyota 4Runner (6.9 PP100).

ADVANCES IN SEAT DESIGN ENGINEERING 

2016 Bentley Bentayga comes with 22-way power adjustment in the driver's seat. The headrest moves up, down, forward and back and features head rest that pulls around your head, cocooning your head in beautiful soft leather. The seat cushion can extend forward for better thigh support. Massage is available on shoulders and backs. Passengers can pump up bolsters for more comfort, then deflate them for easier egress. Bentley is also using a variety of multi-density foams to increase rigidity in some areas and boost comfort in others.

seating

If you think the dizzying array of seat features are the hallmark of uber-luxury cars, think again. Ford's 2017 Lincoln Continental features a 30-way that can be finely adjusted to suit a driver's comfort levels. And surprisingly enough, the 30-way seats aren’t bigger than conventional seats; in fact, they actually use less foam, thanks to a flexible suspension system that provides the support typically offered by thicker cushioning. And lighter is a big deal. As emission standards continue to increase, weight reduction becomes an important consideration in overall car design. Like long-range backpackers who meticulously shed unnecessary load by the ounces, design engineers are also trimming pounds in the seats. 

Johnson Controls Automotive Experience (JCAE), a consortium of companies that makes car seats for almost every major car manufacturer worldwide, is focusing on seat mass reduction by using feather-light carbon-fiber. While reducing mass and weight, the design engineers cannot compromise crash safety either. The CAMISMA Project (Carbon-Amide-Metal-based Interior Structure using a Multi-material system Approach) has produced a seat that’s 40% lighter, but just as strong as a seat built around a conventional metal frame. The new seat combines steel, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, non-woven carbon fiber and thermoplastic tapes made of carbon filaments.

Some of the seat innovations give you a feeling that you are living in Jetsons. Last year, JCAE unveiled the ID15 "innovation demonstrator", a concept passenger compartment in which the front seats can move away from the dashboard during driverless operation, and also rotate about 20 degrees toward each other to facilitate conversations. The 20-degree design still keeps the occupants facing relatively forward, and thus still protected by conventional airbag systems, which is one less item to redesign.

GOALS IN CAR SEAT DESIGN

More than 60% of all surveyed, across age groups in the PwC report, expected cars to be like traveling computers or entertainment centers, embedded with a myriad of sensors and communication devices that transmit all manners of information to and from our homes, our phones, and our other personal devices. In fact, the cars of tomorrow are becoming an extension of the user, that are connected to different parts of their daily lives. Our cars will be able to automatically sense weather conditions, project our possible destinations, plan optimal routes, adjust our seat positions and seat temperatures based on the persons sitting in the seat - all before we ask it to.

This is not a far-off goal, in fact. As the prevalence of Internet of Things (IoT) built-in sensors, it is now an AI- and Machine Learning-based software engineering task that weaves all the sensing, predictive and planning tasks together. Indeed, JCAE already has developed technology that allows the riders to use a smartphone app to instruct the car to "pre-adjust" the seat, assuming best seating posture.

seating

In the 1980s, AutoCAD was invented, which offers a perception of a 3D model’s parameters such as shape, color, kinematics, nevertheless, the need for real time human interaction is always present. AI-enabled VR and AR can now be considered as an extension to the conventional CAD tools by means of further extending the human integration. AI-enabled VR and AR work extremely well with the need to rework and redesign the car seats. Virtual reality allows a vast amount of high-dimensional data, which the domain of car design typically falls into, to be visualized easily in person – in a format that is experiential, not just conceptual. Design engineers can now transform the design workflow, easily change the parameters of models, uniquely configure the seats, and visualize its impact to both the vehicles as well as its occupants. Engineers can now change seat configurations on the fly, test a large number of combinations quickly and cheaply – all without having to wait months for and spend thousands on a demo product. 

In the future, we envision adaptive seats that learn to adjust by themself. In other words, if an occupant makes one change – say, changes the back angle – the angle of the seat cushion might automatically change to more evenly distribute the pressure on the occupant’s legs. In short, a seat that is sufficiently intelligent that it can predict all the other adjustments based on one or two manual inputs, that although the car is equipped with 22- or 30-way adjustments, you never have to go through the maddening array of adjustments to get to a comfortable combination. What is next, is that car seats should have the ability to automatically sensing a rider's weight and body measurements to make predictive adjustments to seat positions and seat temperatures, while giving the occupant choices for fine-tuning.

SOURCES

  • Ford Designers Strap on Augmented Reality Goggles to Design Better Cars
  • Eric Adams - https://www.wired.com/story/ford-design-microsoft-hololens/
  • Mixed Reality Agency | HoloLens Developer | Windows MR | Finger Food
  • Fingerfoodstudios - https://www.fingerfoodstudios.com/landing/mixed-reality-agency/
  • Driving the future: Understanding the new automotive consumer
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers - https://www.pwc.com/us/en/advisory-services/publications/consumer-intelligence-series/autotech.html
  • J.D. Power 2017 Seat Quality and Satisfaction Study
  • jillian.breska - http://www.jdpower.com/press-releases/jd-power-2017-seat-quality-and-satisfaction-study 

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