Plastics in the driver's seat, and the passenger seats, for future cars

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Jessica Jordan Adient was one of the key suppliers working with FCA US's Chrysler Portal concept vehicle, on display at the North American International Auto Show.

Detroit — Adient’s new seating technology relies on a flexible plastic shell to achieve the thin profile in demand for vehicles of the future.

The seating supplier’s design supports the occupant with shaped seat and back panels made from Hytrel thermoplastic elastomer. The material flexes as the occupant changes position, providing support without more bulky padding materials, said Tom Gould, director of industrial design and research.

The seat does incorporate a thin layer of foam, and while it replaces certain metal parts such as the seat pan, it retains metal safety-related components and mechanisms, Gould said.

“[The plastic shell] is sitting on a more traditional seat structure — but with this we can thin things up considerably,” Gould said, comparing the plastic form to structures used in office furniture. “… When we tested these seats just sitting on the plastic, it feels really good just sitting on the plastic. The trim and foam are really for aesthetic reasons.”

The shell’s slatted design enhances its flexibility and allows for the integration of temperature control and other systems, said Chief Engineer Eric Michalak.

Adient is displaying the thin-profile seat system, expected to be available in 2020, as part of its AI17 demonstrator at the North American International Auto Show, held this month in Detroit. Seats in the demonstrator swing outward to ease entry and exit, and turn inward to enable conversation with a passenger in the case of autonomous capabilities.

Adient also collaborated with FCA US LLC on the seating for its Chrysler Portal concept vehicle, designed to be a “third space” for consumers in the age of autonomous driving.

Occupants of autonomous vehicles, said Adient’s vice president of innovation Richard Chung, will want more space around their seats and the ability to change seat positions. The smaller package space of the thin-profile design can enable this flexibility, and can further be used to save weight and increase legroom in more conventional vehicles. In electric vehicles where batteries are located in the floor of the vehicle, a few extra inches can make a big difference.

Adient Ltd. Adient's thin seats use thermoplastic elastomer for a comfortable but flexible structures.

“Block height changes will be a big change to the seats in terms of how we put those together,” Gould said in an interview ahead of the auto show. “Being able to offer thin solutions allows us to adapt quickly to those environments as the architectures change, and plastics are a part of how we adapt to those.

“If we can make a seat back thinner, the vehicle can actually get smaller and lighter as a whole… you get a tremendous amount of weight savings over just what the seat is doing on its own.”

Director of Engineering Vedat Nuyan said future seating systems will require the development of new shapes and surfaces — not only to save space and meet performance requirements, but also to enable OEMs to differentiate their products through design. High-gloss surfaces and ambient lighting are two design features in demand for today’s vehicles.

“As we understood from the market, they want to have a different shape in the new kind of cars… to show ‘this is a new car, a new autonomous or electrical car, and also my seat is a little bit different,’” he said ahead of the auto show. “How you can show it to the customer is with the A-class surfaces.

“Currently, you are creating seats with a metal heart and you have plastics around the metal. In the future… we have to propose to the market new design proposals where we can combine structural parts with A-class surfaces.”

Adient, the seating company spun off from Johnson Controls, operates 230 locations around the world. Its seats use a variety of plastic components, including composite back panels, side balances, bezel, covers, storage boxes and handles, most bought in from third-party suppliers. The company produced 25 million seat systems last year.