SEAT RELIEF

Lear, others devise high-tech ways to support bad backs

Lear staffers study a computer display of color-coded pressure points on the back and seat cushions of the company's automatic-adjusting seat, which is under development.
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Lear Corp. wants motorists to sit up straight.

The seat maker is developing a "smart" seat that adjusts itself automatically to correct a motorist's posture, important for comfort on long trips.

Rival seat makers have been developing their own smart seats. Faurecia, for example, unveiled a self-adjusting limo-style rear seat for use in long-wheelbase luxury sedans. And Johnson Controls Inc. told Automotive News in January that it's developing its own self-adjusting seat.

Smart seats solve another problem: Many motorists are confused by complicated controls on many seats. They often make a few adjustments, then quit in frustration without finding a comfortable position, Lear said.

The Lear seat, dubbed Proactive Posture Seating, is designed to provide more support just above the lumbar area of the back.

After analyzing data from the seat's pressure sensors, a computer adjusts the inflation of eight air sacs in the seat to spread the occupant's weight evenly.

The air sacs gently nudge the occupant into a more upright position.

This allows the driver to breathe more easily, minimizing fatigue on long trips, said Karl Henn, Lear's director of production technology.

If the occupant doesn't like the position, he or she can adjust the seat manually, Henn noted.

Simoncini: Lear CEO suffered from back pain.

Lear began developing the seat about three years ago, when CEO Matthew Simoncini was suffering from chronic back pain.

Simoncini asked his chiropractor, Winsen Zouzal, how to ease the pain during long car trips.

"I took a look at his back and said he should put a rolled towel behind his back," Zouzal recalled. "I said that would ease that portion of the back and put you into a proper posture."

It worked. Impressed, Simoncini asked Zouzal to work with a team of Lear engineers to design an ergonomically correct vehicle seat. Last August, the company had made enough progress to file for a patent of the seat's mechanics.

Lear expects to finalize the design this summer. In the meantime, the design team continues to gather data and fine-tune the seat for people with different body types.

The current version has eight adjustable air sacs; Zouzal said that number may be doubled.

Lear's seat does not use a camera or infrared sensor to establish the occupant's height. Instead, the motorist enters his or her height and weight via a tablet, smartphone or center console.

The motorist also indicates whether he or she suffers any neck pain, backache or other posture-related problems. Once the questionnaire is filled out, the seat's pressure sensors do the rest.

If the occupant shifts weight during a long trip, the sensors record the movement, and the control unit automatically adjusts the seat. Lear is promoting its ergonomic seat for the luxury market, but the company also is looking at the broader market.

Henn said the company's equipment can be used to improve any seat that has motorized controls. Lear's only changes would be new software for the controller, plus more air sacs. So automakers could start with a software upgrade to an existing seat and later add the extra air sacs and pressure sensors.

When will the nation's motorists plant their weary tushes in Lear's new seat? Henn said the company doesn't have any production contracts. But several potential customers have shown an interest, he said.

Indeed, automatic self-adjusting seats do seem like good bets over the next three years or so. Luxury-car seat controls are getting more complex and confusing for motorists to adjust.

"The key is to deliver this at a price point that is neutral to the automakers," Simoncini said. "The first thing they want to do is lower costs and lower weight. I think we can do both."

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com.


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