The way Karl Henn of Lear Corp. figures it, the cushions of a car seat potentially hold the key to a wealth of information about the occupant's safety, well-being and comfort.
Using a new generation of biometric sensors roughly akin to those in activity trackers such as a Fitbit, Henn, Lear's top advanced seat engineer, wants to gather that information and use it to transform the way car seats function.
Carmakers are listening. Lear says it has a letter of intent from one premium automaker and strong interest from a second to launch a new generation of intelligent seats in 2018.
"This is the biggest change in seats in the 22 years I've been here," says Henn. "When I started here in the early '90s, the seat was a metal frame with a piece of foam on top of it and a piece of fabric on top of that.
"We want to create a seat that intuitively knows what to do and when to do it. This should be a seat that has no switches, no buttons, no levers, no controls. You should open the door, get in the car and drive," he says. Lear is even creating a new brand of intelligent seats called Intu.
Rival seat supplier Faurecia showed its version of a smart seat -- the Active Wellness Seat concept -- in April at the Shanghai auto show. Using medical-grade sensors that can take readings through clothing, the concept seat monitors the occupant's heart rate, posture and other conditions. If the occupant is stressed, the seat can detect it and set off a blast of cool air or administer a soothing massage.
"It's part of a larger strategy to bring more intelligence into a seat, leading people to feel better at the end of the trip than when we got in," says Matt Benson, advanced innovation manager at Faurecia's xWorks innovation center. Like Lear, Faurecia is cagey about prospective customers, but Benson says the company is also aiming for 2018 production.
Other big seat makers such as Johnson Controls and Magna International are researching smart seats, which have implications in the developing autonomous-vehicle market.
High-tech seat concepts could help seat companies boost profits in a low-margin business. But smart seats face hurdles.