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Inner Space: Exploring New Design Features

Vehicles are getting smaller, so automakers are getting creative to invent more interior space. That means thinner seats, improved access to third rows and clever adjustments to create new cargo space.

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General Motors

The downsizing of our four-wheel world is on.

Based on data from market-research company Autodata, sales of large passenger vehicles fell by 74 percent in November 2012 from November 2011. Sales of large SUVs slid by 18 percent during the same period. Simultaneously, sales of subcompact/compact cars, midsize cars, compact crossover SUVs and midsize SUVs rose by 43 percent, 9.4 percent, 24 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively, during that period. As of November 2012, sales of subcompact/compact and midsize cars made up about 86 percent of all car sales, and compact and midsize crossover SUVs and compact and midsize SUVs made up 55 percent of all light-duty truck sales.


At the same time, automakers are faced with stricter Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Although demand for large vehicles never will dry up completely, the confluence of these phenomena is forcing automakers to think like urban apartment dwellers—that is to say, they must be savvy about how to make the most of a finite amount of interior space. At the same time, people still want plenty of room to comfortably fit themselves, their family, their friends and all of their trappings into their vehicles on a daily basis.


“We are in the midst of what could be called a re-car-ification of American roads and highways,” says Matthew Reed, who is the head of the biosciences group at University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. However, Gavriel Salvendy, who is a professor of industrial engineering at Purdue University and Tsinghua University, says the interaction between cost, comfort, fuel economy and safety is a tough one in which to find balance.


In other words, automakers are being forced to think about interior space in creative new ways without the inherent benefit of the space that’s found in behemoth sport utility vehicles.


GENERALLY SEATING. One major area that automobile makers are exploring is innovation in seating. On average, seating accounts for between 6 percent and 10 percent of a vehicle’s total weight. Automakers want to reduce this burden and still keep consumer comfort and safety a top priority.


The benefits of thinner seats are twofold: They are lighter and, therefore, help to improve fuel economy, and they also allow for at least a couple more inches of legroom or cargo room. In the pursuit of these benefits, automakers are finding inspiration in at least two interesting places. The first: the office chair. Reed points to its thin, light and ergonomic design. The second: the mattress.


Johnson Controls, which is a supplier to the automobile industry, recently announced its creation of the ComfortThin seat concept. This is a seat that’s based on coil-spring technology that the company developed in partnership with Harrison Spinks, which is a maker of premium mattresses. Johnson Controls claims that the seat concept has the potential to replace conventional urethane-foam pads with thinner pocketed coil springs, reduced trim material and a smaller headrest, thus delivering a 5 percent to 20 percent seat-weight reduction. Moreover, the coil-spring technology enables constant support and comfort to all sizes of occupants, because the seatback surface responds more accurately and more quickly than the traditional seats’ foam does.


Although Johnson Controls states that ComfortThin seats will be available for 2015 model-year vehicles, none of the automakers with which Consumers Digest spoke have placed an order. At least, not yet.


Tim Boundy, who is a global interior architect for General Motors, says that designing seats to be thinner without sacrificing seat comfort or safety is a priority in vehicle engineering. However, Boundy says higher trim levels include accouterments in the seat, such as cooling and heating devices and adjustable bolstering, and that these additions need more protection and space than is provided by the current concepts of the ultrathin seats. Because of this, Boundy says that if we do see office-chair-like thin seats in showrooms, they will be offered in the entry-level versions of vehicles.


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