How Tier 1 Automotive Suppliers Are Leading Consumers Toward Innovation

Feb. 2, 2012
From seats that automatically adjust based on traffic conditions to vehicle-body absorbers that limit shock to struck pedestrians, suppliers are doing a much better job of getting in front of consumer expectations.

In the not-so-distant past, product and system designers in the automotive industry made major changes to vehicles in response to consumer demands.

Today, the auto industry has begun leading the consumer toward greater innovation.

Nowhere has this trend of getting in front of consumer expectations been more evident than at the most recent Los Angeles Auto Show, where Faurecia -- the world's sixth-largest automotive supplier -- introduced no fewer than two dozen such innovations in automotive seating, interiors, exhaust systems and front-end technology.

How Your Smartphone Can Make You More Comfortable

Faurecia Automotive Seating, for example, has built on the consumer's penchant for smartphone apps, enabling vehicle occupants to use their phones to initiate automatic and personalized seat adjustments in their cars.

Today, automotive suppliers are "championing the consumer and working to anticipate their needs."
Faurecia's SmartFit technology uses a smartphone to take a picture of the occupant and guides the driver or passenger through an easy-to-follow process for creating a tailored fit for that individual's body. At the auto show, Faurecia introduced two new downloadable apps for SmartFit.

GPSFit combines the information from the original SmartFit fitting with the road type, vehicle speed and other environmental conditions to dynamically predict the best seating position and adjust the occupant's posture to ensure the best possible driving experience.

GPSFit pulls speed and road data from the vehicle's GPS, determining whether the vehicle is on an interstate or a country road, for example.

With GPS and the smartphone's own apps, the system can determine if traffic issues are imminent, if a weather alert has been issued, and other factors that will impact driving conditions down the road.

GPSFit then influences the seat fit and posture settings to be more appropriate for the changing nature of the task at hand.

If, for example, a driver is moving down a highway in a relaxed posture, then exits to a busy local road, the seat will automatically change to a more alert posture -- while the owner is still driving -- keeping hands and feet in appropriate contact with pedals and the wheel.

The second app - MicroFit -- adds intelligence to the seat's pneumatic system, providing an additional level of comfort and support not possible through the gross movement of the seat alone.

While SmartFit initially adjusts cushion height, backrest height, reclining position and tracking, MicroFit uses the pneumatic system to read the pressure levels of the occupant's body on the seat surface.

Based on those pressures -- from sensors on five bladders in the backrest and two in the seat cushion -- MicroFit automatically balances the pneumatic system, giving a touch more support to areas where too little pressure exists or relief where too much pressure is indicated.

A Seat That Moves With the Driver

Among the other seating innovations from Faurecia is a seat that moves with the driver.

The Faurecia Performance Seat is a new kind of high-performance seat for smaller and midmarket vehicles that offers lightweighting, comfort and attractive design in a very different style.

The look, feel and materials of the Performance Seat draw on approaches used in sportswear and fashion to create a contemporary, high-tech appearance. It also is 30% thinner than conventional seats and weighs 20% less.

Its most notable feature, however, is the seating industry's first "compliant shell."

This shell, which is fitted in front of the backrest frame, conforms to the varying postures, body sizes and body types of drivers and passengers by changing as the occupant moves.

It dynamically and automatically assumes a shape that matches the occupant's body, providing greater pressure distribution than standard seats do.

When the occupant moves, the shell changes shape to give increased support to the lumbar area, upper shoulders and pelvis, all in a synchronized fashion.

Automatic and adjustment-free, the compliant shell replaces 75% of the foam that normally would be used to pad the seatback, dramatically reducing the seat's weight.

Is It a Decoration or a Switch?

Elsewhere inside the vehicle, Faurecia is demonstrating new ways to add more luxury and sophistication to standard vehicles by applying fashionable touches usually found only in upscale interiors.

For example, Faurecia Interiors has fashioned a new concept for decorations across the interior.

Instead of applying decorative trim around or over a functional unit, such as an air vent, the vent itself becomes a decoration -- or a decoration serves as a vent.

In this way, Faurecia combines the function of a part with the decoration of that part -- creating one element rather than two -- while both saving weight and producing a sleek new look.

A clever "infoskin" displays rear-projected information on the vehicle's speed, navigation data and infotainment controls on a layer integrated into the steering wheel.

Replacing the instrument cluster, an interactive decorated surface with backlighting is integrated into the center console and forms a stylized screen set in a high-gloss black finish.

To charge mobile phones, Faurecia has come up with a passenger-side drawer that slides out to reveal a high-quality lining and a charging pad. A passenger can simply place a mobile phone in the drawer and it will charge wirelessly, without the danger of spilling liquids on it.

The Faurecia Interiors demonstrator at the auto show was equipped with a host of other innovations as well, from foot and leg massage on the passenger floor to a pneumatic armrest.

Smaller Systems, Safer Designs

Under the car, Faurecia Emissions Control Technologies has invented a compact exhaust system for the small internal-combustions engines that recharge hybrid electric cars.

The company even has adopted a way to design the sound of an exhaust system of a particular vehicle platform using computer simulations.

Outside, Faurecia Automotive Exteriors is making significant contributions to safety with a pedestrian-protection design that was among those receiving the top rating in Europe for reducing pedestrian shock.

Behind the grille and front fascia, Faurecia has incorporated absorbers specifically designed to limit pedestrian shock. The system includes a polypropylene plastic beam behind the fascia that has been designed to absorb energy.

While automotive suppliers traditionally have been focused on meeting the specifications of their OEM customers, today companies like Faurecia are championing the consumer and working to anticipate their needs, with innovations that add more comfort, style, safety and customization to the driving experience.

Frdric Charon is technology strategy manager for Faurecia SA, a French supplier of seats, interiors, exhaust systems and exterior parts.

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