More and more Americans are 'older' drivers. More and more are hobbled by back pain. And they are spending more time than ever behind the wheel.
For automotive seat makers, it all spells backside opportunity.
Every seat manufacturer is either developing so-called orthopedic seats - or, at the very least, creating more comfortable seats with orthopedic benefit.
Orthopedic seats are seats designed, often in cooperation with medical doctors, to provide strong support to the body, primarily to the lower back and spine. They also promote good posture while driving, even after long periods.
The North American subsidiary of European seat mak-er Recaro GmbH, for instance, plans to sign new-vehicle dealers to sell orthopedic seats as aftermarket products. Recaro also announced in April a joint venture with Johnson Controls Inc. It allows Johnson Controls to produce Recaro seats under license for auto-makers in North America as original equipment. Recaro, known for the firm, supportive seats used in race and sports cars, has begun promoting the orthopedic benefits of its seats.
Elsewhere, Johnson Controls, Lear Corp. and other seat makers are focusing on long-term comfort with orthopedic features built in.
'We definitely see the market increasing in aftermarket orthopedic seats,' says Kuntal Thakurta, manager of the comfort lab at Johnson Controls in Plymouth, Mich.
Marilyn Vala, manager of product analysis for Lear in Southfield, Mich., says, 'Our advanced engineering department is always looking at products that promise some orthopedic benefit.'
How big the market for orthopedic seats will be is anyone's guess. But studies and surveys suggest it could be significant.
The American Academy of Pain Management, for instance, estimates that about 18 million Americans suffer from chronic back pain. Other studies indicate the number may be as high as 31 million. A 1996 Time magazine report says Americans spend an estimated $13.7 billion a year to treat back pain.
Similarly, a survey of 700 German orthopedic doctors says they have seen an increase in back-related problems in the past five years, and the symptoms are becoming more severe. A primary reason: People are sitting for long periods at work and at the wheel.
Indeed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says American drivers spend far more time in a car or truck than drivers of 10 to 20 years ago.
In addition, the population is becoming grayer. By 2000, 30 percent of buyers will be 50 or older. Along with aging comes physical ailments. Back problems are common. The back is one of the most sensitive areas of the body and undergoes tremendous force over a lifetime.
'We're going see more demand for products like orthopedic seats because we'll have more aches and pains,' says Lear's Vala.
Comfort for all
But the line between fully orthopedic seats and more comfortable seats with orthopedic features, such as lumbar support, is blurring. Consumers of all ages demand improvements in seats.
Data gathered by seat makers suggest more emphasis needs to be placed on seat comfort. In clinics of 10,000 consumers in the past five years by Johnson Controls, consumers overwhelmingly identify comfort as one of the three most important factors in seat design.
At Lear, engineers are trying to quantify what seat features truly have benefit and are trying to build orthopedic features into OEM seats. So far, only one invention has been empirically proven to increase comfort. The seat, not yet in production, inflates then slowly deflates the lumbar level every 120 seconds to move the spinal column and stimulate blood flow.
Michelle Krebs is a free-lance reporter based in West Bloomfield, Mich.