JLR is researching morphable seating using foam-embedded actuator-based technology. (JLR)

JLR developing a “morphable” smart seat

Smart actuators that simulate the rhythm of walking are key to Jaguar Land Rover’s automatically adjusting, fully tuneable seat of the future.

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) Research Lead Engineer Dave Withey has invented a seat design that may be the closest yet to a fits-all system for comfort and safety. Rather than use pneumatics for adjustable support, Withey went for an “inside” solution: smart actuators embedded within the seat foam. “It’s about modifying the pocket spring effect of the foam, rather than trying to manipulate it from beneath in order to affect the surfaces,” Withey explained in an exclusive interview for SAE. The “morphable” seat technology, many details of which remain secret, is on trial by JLR’s Body Interiors Research Division.

The smart actuators, integrated with the vehicle’s CANbus communications, are designed to rapidly adjust to provide bespoke comfort – important for AVs – and mitigate lower back pain by making micro-adjustments. The actuators can accommodate any of JLR’s percentile-simulated human shapes and sizes, including children from about the age of 12 (depending on height). They are expected to conform to a seat occupant’s stature automatically and will feature a fully tunable manual override.

The morphable seats are initially planned for conventional JLR vehicles. They will be particularly applicable for on-demand autonomous vehicles such as robotaxis. The system may also prove useful in helping to overcome motion sickness, a problem certain to affect some AV occupants. “We are exploring all exploitation routes for this technology,” Withey said. One application may be Project Vector, JLR’s flexible-use compact EV platform. The “autonomy-ready” vehicle is slated to begin road trials in late 2021.

Seat design traditionally has rested firmly on compromise, requiring multiple adjusters to attempt to match human ergonomics. But Withey, who suffers from musculoskeletal issues, had a new idea that he introduced during a brainstorming session at JLR. “I knew that when we’re walking, small adjustments are constantly made to the lumbar spine to provide therapeutic benefits and prevention of back strain,” he noted.

Using this knowledge, he researched the possibility of simulating the rhythm of walking and extrapolating it to a purely mechanical application via actuators. By fall 2018 the morphable seat project was initiated. “In effect, the actuators are applied to manipulate the seat in a way that reproduces the pelvic oscillation motion that is experienced when walking, and is recommended periodically for therapeutic benefit, and prevention of low back strain,” Withey told Automotive Engineering. He noted additional mass would be negligible: “In the tens of grams.” He was unable to discuss cost of the technology.

The seat project team of 20 works with the automaker’s in-house ergonomics and human sciences departments, plus external academic and medical specialists. The project fits neatly with JLR’s commitment to customers’ overall well-being and is linked to the wider “cause and effect” Destination Zero (zero emissions, zero accidents and zero congestion) research program.

JLR cites World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally, 1.4 billion people are living increasingly sedentary lifestyles. This can shorten some muscles, including those in the legs, hips and gluteals, which can result in back pain – precisely what the morphable seat technology aims to alleviate. Observed Dr. Steve Iley, JLR’s chief medical officer: “We are using our engineering expertise to develop the seat of the future using innovative technologies not seen before in the automotive industry, to tackle an issue that affects people across the globe.”

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