It is hard to imagine how improvements in a Formula One race car's cockpit can lead to more comfortable minivan seats.
However, Lear Corp. is betting that its efforts to improve the cocoonlike Formula One seats will spin off technological breakthroughs into mass-market vehicles.
Lear is using laser scanners and computer modeling to design seats for the London-based Stewart Grand Prix F1 team - a technique it hopes to adapt for mass-produced cars and trucks.
Other automotive suppliers also hope to develop racing technology with crossover uses for 'civilian' vehicles.
For example, Ford's Visteon Automotive Systems is using voice recognition technology to develop a no-hands two-way radio that lets drivers communicate with the pit crew. Visteon might use that technology to improve mass-market driver controls for route guidance systems and e-mail.
Lear's technology replaces traditional techniques that were 'tedious and expensive,' says James Masters, vice president for advanced technology.
In the past, seat molds were made using a plastic bag wrapped with duct tape covering a bit of foam. A driver would sit on a plastic bag for a few minutes while duct tape was wrapped over the bag's surface to solidify the fit. After forming the shell, engineers would jam foam padding into random nooks inside the cockpit.
The old seats frequently cracked after being subjected to the severe stresses and vibrations of a Formula One race. Last year, Lear had to produce 30 seats for driver Rubens Barrichello, who had to sit inside the mold each time a seat was produced.
The new method 'eliminates the need for taking the driver's time to 'foam' him to make a model for the seat,' Masters says.
Lear uses a laser scanner to develop a three-dimensional image of the driver's body. That is fed into a computer, which allows designers to form-fit the seat to the body. Lear then fills in gaps around the shell with protective energy-absorbing foam.
Lear's software makes it easy to customize the shell to suit each driver's preferences. If the driver wants more stiffness at the rib cage or more flexibility around the arms, Lear can easily tweak the design. This procedure offers drivers a more precise fit than the old Formula One seat-making system.
The new seats, made of carbon fiber and Kevlar, debuted in March at the Australian Grand Prix.
Soccer moms as models
Now, Lear engineers are dreaming up ways to improve mass-market seats. For example, if the average driver for a minivan is a soccer mom, Lear might laser-scan a group of women to determine typical body dimensions of a minivan driver.
Lear might laser-scan a group of men to develop a better front seat for a burlier pickup owner. An entry-level car's seat might be customized to fit the body of a college student with a slighter build.
'It's a trickier business to generalize the population by certain vehicles,' Masters says. 'But certain body characteristics can be defined according to market niche.'
Another solution would be to design several seats, allowing buyers to choose one to fit their build. Technology to make that possible is not far off. Lear is working with Genicom Consultants of Montreal on software that records data from body scans. The software, Virtual Man, can reproduce a body on a computer screen from a laser scan.
'Maybe you could have your body scanned and have a seat made for you,' Masters says. 'It would be very similar to foam ski boots. You could even keep your own seat and use it in different cars.'
Although Lear is optimistic about its racing program's long-term potential, some suppliers are enjoying an immediate payoff.
For example, a Visteon-designed engine control unit introduced in 1994 for a Formula One race car now is used on Ford cars and trucks.
A race car's engine - which must rev up to 10,000 rpm for hours - is a demanding test bed for any engine control unit.
Visteon has other crossover technologies under development. For example, a voice recognition system would allow Visteon to develop a no-hands two-way radio for drivers.
Currently, race drivers generally use a toggle switch mounted on the steering column to activate a two-way radio. A radio that can be activated by voice commands would allow the driver to keep both hands on the steering wheel - no small matter at speeds of more than 200 mph.
Voice commands also could be used to project speed, rpm and other data onto a head-up display on the windshield.
Yet another technology with crossover potential is telemetry. A pit crew uses telemetry to monitor a race car's performance - such as fuel consumption and engine rpm - from a remote location.
Visteon supplies telemetry to a number of racing teams, including the Newman-Haas, Team Rahal and Della Penna Motorsports CART teams.
The trucking industry wants to adapt this technology to monitor trucks on the road. A central data bank could store information on fuel economy, tire pressure, emissions and other data for each vehicle.
'Companies like Freightliner and Navistar are talking about managing big fleets over long distances,' says Craig Muhlhauser, Visteon's vice president of global marketing and sales. 'You can use telemetry to monitor how the vehicles are performing. Even a small percentage improvement in fuel economy can save big money.'
Despite the allure of crossover technology, racing's biggest payoff to Visteon may be an intangible: the ability to design parts quickly.
Ford's parts-making division wants to speed up product development. For example, Visteon designed a Formula One driver display in only four months. Using lessons learned from racing, Visteon wants to cut product development to 10 months, down from the current 12 to 18 months.
Racing gives engineers 'a sense of urgency and nimbleness,' says John Quigley, Visteon's director of global technology development for powertrain controls. 'We want them to gain the ability to make decisions quickly on their feet.'
David Sedgwick is a Detroit-based Automotive News staff reporter.