DETROIT — Settle into the driver's side of Volvo Car Corp.'s "safety concept car," and the seat begins to move beneath you.
Sensors from above take finite readings of your height and use the data to position you at the driving sweet spot. The steering wheel, pedals and central console also adjust to meet you.
Once settled in, you can take in the view, not just from the windshield in front of you and windows to the left and right but also through the A-pillar that separates them. Pieces of Plexiglas acrylic sheet intertwine with the structural steel in the pillar to improve visibility by 60 percent.
It is just one piece of plastic on the Volvo vehicle that was designed to feature safety elements.
"Crash safety alone is not enough to make a safe car," Hans Gustavson, senior vice president for research, design and planning, said Jan. 8 during the car's introduction at the North American International Auto Show 2001 in Detroit.
"You've got to increase driver control."
The typical slant of a metal pillar makes for a huge blind spot for drivers. Putting the clear acrylic along that beam opens the field of vision while a winding web of steel still provides structural strength.
But to make even the one improvement work, designers had to alter the interior architecture to ensure that drivers end up with their eyes in the best possible place to view the road.
The idea is to place them where they will see more of the plastic and less of the structural steel.
"Everything is designed to line up their eyes in the optimal zone," said John Carr, innovative properties team leader for Johnson Controls Inc.
JCI's Plymouth, Mich.-based automotive unit was one of the suppliers that worked extensively with Volvo on the concept car and provided new systems.
Volvo is a Goteborg, Sweden-based division of Ford Motor Co.
Many of the new technologies combine the typical plastic-coated elements of an interior, from the instrument panel to the steering wheel and seats, with electronics that automatically adapt for each person.
Sensors attached to the exterior mirror's plastic housing flash out a warning if there is a passing car when a driver changes lanes, while the headlights switch automatically for different driving conditions, whether on a dark country road or a well-lit city street.
A concealed, external air bag is designed to inflate if the car hits a pedestrian or cyclist, providing a cushion to keep that person's head from hitting the windshield.
The front seats attach to a reconfigured B-pillar instead of the floor, allowing them to move up and down freely. JCI made height-adjustable rear seats, so children can be moved into the proper position for seat-belt adjustments.
Like the front seat arrangement, the manual height adjuster puts passengers into an optimal position, Carr said.
"It's amazing that when you look at [test data] video, that person's head is all over the place in the back seat," he said.
At the same time, those rear-seat passengers can see out the windows easily, said Lars Jansson, general manager for Volvo's monitoring and concept center in Camarillo, Calif.
Cleveland-based TRW Automotive provided two styles of four-point seat belts — an H-style typically used in race cars and a crisscross system similar to existing three-point belts but with an additional shoulder strap.
Four-point belts would be easy to add to vehicle programs and are safer, Carr noted.
But even if studies continue to point out how safe a four-point belt is, carmakers cannot force them, or any other safety improvement, on consumers until they are ready to use them, Jansson said.
"It is important for the customer to accept them," Jansson said. "We can design all of this, but we also have to listen to what the customer wants."
Automakers could begin putting four-point belts in cars within just a few years, pending federal regulatory approval, said Arnie Herberg, a research and development engineer for TRW's occupant safety systems.
To help introduce consumers to the belts and get their reaction, Ford set up seats with the systems at its auto show display and encouraged people to buckle up.
"It took a long time for people to get used to [three-point shoulder belts]," said Roger Garrell, manager of product and planning for TRW's occupant safety unit.