PITY THE LOWLY DRIVER'S SEAT. Amid the introduction of everything from hydrogen fuel cells and active aerodynamics to cloud-based infotainment systems and full-on autonomous driving capabilities, the seats in a car generally take, well, a back seat to flashier, sexier automotive advancements – playing Emma Peel to John Steed, as it were. “We always focus on the design of the dashboard or the concept of the car … and the seats seem to be something we sketch later,” laments Darren Day, head of interior design for Bentley Motors.

Sure, there’ve been some exceptions along the road to seating perdition, including the addition of heating, ventilation and massage functions — along with offbeat options like the outward-swiveling seats came into vogue during the 1950s. But by and large, seats are an afterthought, which is surprising, given that they account for roughly 5% of a car’s total cost and about 6% of its weight.

But that dynamic is changing as car designers look to interiors as the next laboratory for innovative differentiation. And as driverless cars become a reality, experts predict that seat designs will evolve even further and head in previously unimaginable directions.

Clearly, the driver's seat is poised for its Norma Desmond moment.

Bentley upped its interior game last year with the Bentayga SUV's 22-way adjustable drivers seat. The headrest moves up, down, forward and back and features “ears to pull around your head … cocooned in beautiful soft leather,” says Day.

The seat cushion can extend forward for better thigh support. Massage programs offer hard or soft rubs for shoulders and backs. Passengers can pump up bolsters for more comfort, then deflate them for easier egress. Day points out that Bentley is using different multi-density foams to increase rigidity in some areas and boost comfort in others.

“The seat adjusts in a multitude of ways to make it the most comfortable place to be,” he notes. “And it looks perfectly tailored – we took the design to the next level.”

In the US, the Ford Motor Company's 2017 Lincoln Continental features a 30-way throne of comfort that seems capable of doing everything except make a mimosa. Ripping a page from the high-end, airplane-seat-design playbook, this versatile front seat — an even plusher version of which, pictured above, appeared in the company's recent Navigator Concept — can be finely adjusted to suit a driver's comfort levels, says Johnathan Line, advanced seat-innovation supervisor and global technical expert for seating. 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.

“A lot of people take the car seat for granted,” Line notes. “But there’s more you can do with seats than just sit in them. We’re trying to create a seat that you feel happy to sit in it – that supports and hugs you so that you get a sense of well-being and safety.

“We’re trying to create a seating experience,” he adds, noting that the seat also offers massage functions in the seat back and cushion, not to mention cooling vents and heating capability. “This is not a gimmick.”

The new seat reflects a thorough study of basic human biomechanics. Thusly educated, designers created better support systems in key areas and eliminated so-called “hard points” that restrict blood flow and create stress and fatigue in the neck, shoulder and thighs.

For example, since one leg typically rests while the other engages the throttle and brake pedals, the seat offers independent thigh cushions that can move up or down – or even extend toward the steering wheel. The headrest moves four ways — up, down, forward and back — and the back bolsters provide support around the rib cage and embraces occupants during cornering. And the bottom cushion is designed for the way humans sit, with their legs slightly splayed, using a concept similar to NASA-designed seating for space vehicles, Line notes.

A lot of people take the car seat for granted, but there’s more you can do with seats than just sit in them. We’re trying to create a seat that you feel happy to sit in it – that supports and hugs you so that you get a sense of well-being and safety.

Some of the innovations are less visible, such as the use of composites for seat frames. Such materials not only decrease weight, they also give designers the freedom to push the design envelope. “They allow you to shape and support things in ways that other materials can’t – or they can, but only with great difficulty,” Line explains. As an example, he cites the Continental’s upper-back support, shaped like a pair of shoulders and featuring a cantilevered design with a pivot on the bottom. When it articulates, it creates a “hugging” effect on the upper back and more evenly distributes weight. “That would be difficult to do with traditional steel,” he says.

As more countries impose tighter emissions standards, weight reduction becomes an increasingly important consideration in car design – and lighter seats can be part of the solution, says Nick Petouhoff, director of advanced development for seating for Johnson Controls Automotive Experience, which makes car seats for almost every major car manufacturer worldwide. And since multi-adjustable seats require more motors that add weight, JCAE is focusing instead on reducing the mass of seats’ core structure, mainly by using feather-light carbon-fibre composite materials.

As an example, he cites the CAMISMA Project (Carbon-Amide-Metal-based Interior Structure using a Multi-material system Approach), a consortium of companies that 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, fibreglass-reinforced plastic, non-woven carbon fibre and thermoplastic tapes made of carbon filaments.


In 1967, an unusual option presaged the driverless era

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At the height of the US luxury arms race of the 1960s, the Chrysler Corporation's Imperial marque attempted to one-up rivals Cadillac and Lincoln with an odd but exceptionally clever package that turned the opulent Crown Coupe into a rolling conference room. The Mobile Director option allowed the front passenger seat to pivot a full 180 degrees to face the rear-seat occupants. The front armrest swiveled and unfolded to create a height-adjustable work table, and a high-intensity gooseneck reading lamp, stored in the glovebox, could be plugged into one of four power outlets. It's a setup that is identical (well three-quarters identical) to last year's driverless Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept. Not surprisingly, Imperial's Mobile Director package had few takers. The option was available only in 1967 and '68 and initially priced at a fairly steep $597.40. The few buyers who chose to face backward, however, were among the most forward of forward-thinkers. —Matthew Phenix

Carbon fibre has drawbacks, of course; it’s expensive, for one, and it’s difficult to work with, which in turn limits production capabilities. But the advent of innovative materials like the one developed by CAMISMA could eventually change that paradigm and allow cost-effective mass production of strong but lighter and thinner seat frames, Petouhoff says.

“We’re also using magnesium and aluminium,” he adds. “But each material has its own challenges in terms of strength characteristics, costs and manufacturability.” In essence, it’s all about various trade-offs, but the payoff might be a seat frame that’s so elegant, carmakers may not want to hide it under upholstery. “If people are paying more money for it, they’ll want to show it off,” says Petouhoff.

AND WHAT ABOUT AUTONOMOUS CARS? Will the driver's seat evolve further when the car becomes the driver? Absolutely, says Line, noting that consumers will demand a greater degree of comfort and flexibility. No longer preoccupied with driving, occupants will read or work while traveling; as such, they’ll want seats to adjust in ways never imagined before, he says.

“We’ll have to look at how somebody might fit in cars in a different way,” says Day. “In a lounge on wheels, it’ll no longer be necessary to face forward, which will bring its own risks and problems.

“Currently, automobile seats are designed for people who sit facing forward and receive impacts (in accidents) from the front, rear and side,” he continues. “But in an autonomous car, they could be laying down … so the way the seat reacts to you would have to be considered in a far different way.”

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 increase interactivity as occupants are freed from the yoke of keeping eyes on the road.

Why not 90 degrees? “If we can keep occupants facing forward, we can still deliver them into conventional airbag systems,” Petouhoff explains. “But eventually, airbags and restraint and safety systems might change, too. We’re taking a graduated or generational view of how we can start moving occupants in the interior as various levels of (driving) autonomy come in from automakers.”

What else might the future of car seats hold? Perhaps a seat that senses the occupant’s weight and height and adjusts automatically? “I actually do see that,” Line says. “In some respects, we already have some technologies that can do that, like occupancy sensors for airbags. Going forward, I see going beyond that and having a seat that’s intuitive to what the occupant needs, based on their size.”

Petouhoff says JCAE already has developed technology called "pre-adjust", in which a seat occupant uses a smart phone app to “tell” the car his or her height, and the seat then automatically assumes the best seating posture. “As we work on further generations, we hope the technology will sense height, weight and distribution of weight,” he says.

We don’t want the occupant to need a PhD to control the seat and get into a comfortable position … so instead, we’ll make the seat smarter — let it adapt to you.

In the future, Petouhoff also envisions adaptive seats that, in a sense, adjust to adjustments. 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.

“We don’t want to make the seat more comfortable for the back and less comfortable for another part of your body,” he explains. “We envision a seat that’s smarter than a 20-way seat – that anticipates other things you need to be comfortable. We envision up to 32 ways of how to move the human body. But we don’t want the occupant to need a PhD to control the seat and get into a comfortable position…so instead, we’ll make the seat smarter — let it adapt to you.”

Day envisions putting pertinent body information on a smart key or phone that can transmit that data to the seat for automatic adjustments – perfect for the husband who drives his wife’s car, then forgets to readjust the seat (or vice-versa). “It would almost be as if your car was like your butler, who knows that you like to take tea at 3:00 in a room at a certain temperature,” Day says. “Why shouldn’t the Bentley of the future have a seat and temperature environment set exactly to your taste? That would be an amazing experience for a customer.”

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