DEARBORN – As American drivers face longer commutes and more back pain, Ford engineers crafted smaller and lighter, yet more comfortable and supportive seats for the all-new 2013 Ford Escape that also help deliver improved fuel economy as part of an overall reduction in vehicle weight.
“People are spending more time in their vehicles and continually touch the seats, which is why it has become increasingly important to ensure their seat is both comfortable and supportive,” said seat comfort engineer Mike Kolich, better known inside the company as “Dr. Derriere.” “We are designing our seats so when drivers and passengers arrive at their destinations, they are relaxed and ready to go.”
According to Mayo Clinic researchers, back pain ranks second only to headaches as the most frequent cause of pain. Some of this discomfort is caused by Americans spending more time than ever in vehicles, with 50 percent of drivers reporting they experience lower back pain. According to a University of California study, the average driver spends 101 minutes per day on the road.
Kolich is a member of the global seating team that was established in 2005 to bring the development of industry-leading seats in-house at Ford. The team creates seats that meet the safety, quality, functionality, design and packaging requirements of Ford’s global vehicles while ensuring drivers and passengers are comfortable whether they are in Detroit, Paris, Rio de Janeiro or Beijing.
For video of the Ford seat team testing click http://youtu.be/1fDgMMIPkK0.
The all-new 2013 Escape is the first Ford vehicle with a global seat architecture specifically designed to conform to the Ford seat DNA. The DNA is a set of quantifiable measurements for each system in a new vehicle designed to provide a consistent feel across all Ford vehicles worldwide.
When the team of engineers (three each in Europe and Brazil, seven in North America and one in Asia) studied customer data in each region, they learned that many of their old assumptions about seats were wrong. “We used to think Europeans liked aggressively shaped seats with firm cushions while Americans preferred flat, cushy seats,” said Kolich. “The reality is that regardless of the size and shape of a driver’s backside, they tend to value roughly the same characteristics when it comes to comfort. European drivers actually wanted somewhat more cushioning than previously thought while Americans wanted better support.”
After running thousands of tests with drivers and passengers around the world in the lab and in vehicles, the team was able to quantify a set of common standards that would provide more comfort no matter where people drive a Ford vehicle.
With the comfort requirements established, the challenge was to build seats that hold occupants in place, increase interior roominess and contribute to the goal of reducing vehicle weight.
Comfort beyond the car
While working on the seats for the new Escape, Kolich studied dozens of chairs used outside of the automotive industry for ideas about what makes a comfortable throne.
“The office chair industry is one of the major industries we’re looking at in terms of construction, materials and durability,” he said. “If you look at the advancements in office chairs from the 1960s – when luxury meant big, puffy cushions – to where they are now, with thin, ergonomic chairs that still feel luxurious, it’s definitely a major change in the way seats are designed.”
The Escape hasn’t been fitted with anything like those modern, high-end office chairs yet – future vehicles will get even slimmer seats – but slimmer seat backs and optimized cushions contribute to increased foot and knee room for rear seat passengers.
By using the same computer simulation tools available to crash safety engineers, the team has developed an award-winning, world-class front seat structure architecture that is 10 percent lighter while meeting global requirements and providing enhanced functionality. These achievements are enabled by use of high-strength steels, laser welding, intelligent part integration, targeted use of engineered plastics and detailed structural-section analyses. This work has resulted in seven Ford-exclusive patent applications to date. The driver’s seat of the 2013 Escape is now available with 10-way power adjustment, and rear seat passengers will benefit from an available reclining seat back.
Subtle, yet significant changes
Many of the changes to the new seats aren’t readily apparent to casual observers. One of the elements of the Ford seat DNA covers the contour of the seat back. When viewed from above, other seat backs typically have a U-shape, where the main central portion of the cushion is flat, with side bolsters emerging from the outer edges. A driver with a torso that is the same width as the seat would be properly restrained during cornering maneuvers. However, a thinner driver could find him or herself sliding toward the outer bolster when going around a curve or just positioned too far to one side or the other.
The new Escape seats feature a V-shape contour that self-centers the driver much as a ball rolling down a V-shaped groove will tend to settle toward the center. Whatever the size or shape of the driver in the 2013 Escape, that person will find him or herself centered in front of the steering wheel and instrument panel and properly positioned relative to the airbags in the event of a crash.
Objective evaluation of every seat design is conducted in a dedicated lab at Ford’s Product Development Center. An industry-standard mannequin dubbed OSCAR is used in conjunction with state-of-the-art coordinate measuring machines to measure the space around the seat with bodies of various sizes. The three-dimensional coordinate data are analyzed and fed back to the computer models used as part of the vehicle development process including crash simulation.
Ford is advancing its seat technology to help alleviate back pain by using a newer mannequin that features a three-segment articulated back. The current OSCAR dummy was originally developed in the 1950s with a one-piece back. The new dummy more closely replicates the human body and enables Ford engineers to collect more detailed data about pressure points on the back that ultimately lead to seats that provide better support where it’s needed. Ford is among the first automakers to use this new mannequin. Across the lab, robotic test equipment is used to measure the deflection of the soy-foam cushions and bolsters with a range of loads using aluminum pans that simulate the shape of various body types.
Seat of the pants
Even with all of the quantitative data being collected, eventually the engineers have to put butts in seats. Blind comfort evaluations are conducted using a turntable with five different seats mounted on it. Testers sit down on the seat, give a subjective rating, and then the turntable rotates to bring the next seat around. All of these efforts are paying off, as the number of consumers surveyed by the Global Quality Research System giving a “high satisfaction” rating to Ford seats steadily rose from 78 percent to 83 percent between 2005 and 2010.