Seating is something that most people never think about when they get behind the wheel. But, it plays an important role in overall customer satisfaction. That’s why automotive engineers are spending more time working on seat-of-the-pants technology these days.

“Seat features improve the customer experience with a vehicle, and seat quality enhances customer loyalty,” says Brent Gruber, senior director for the global automotive division at J.D. Power and Associates, which conducts an annual study on the topic. “Consumers are focusing more attention on interior design and comfort, and seats are a critical element of the vehicle’s interior.

“Automakers and suppliers are responding by adding content and materials to the seats that create a sense of luxury and enhance the look and feel of the seating,” adds Gruber.

“Seats have always been an important styling element and touch point in the vehicle, but that importance is increasing as automakers try to differentiate their models in a competitive market,” explains Gruber. “We expect that will continue as the industry moves toward autonomous vehicles and the seat becomes an integrated part of the evolving vehicle environment.”

Automotive suppliers are scrambling to integrate new features to vehicle seating, such as reading lights and climate controls.

“Over time, consumer needs have evolved,” says Dino Nardicchio, global vice president for research and development at Magna Seating of America Inc. “People’s lives are busier than ever, and their seating needs often change throughout the day.”

To address that, Magna engineers are developing flexible seating options that “feature more functionality and easier adaptability to address lifestyle needs and give more customized control to individuals.”

They recently developed a new type of suspension system for use in the 2017 Lincoln Continental sedan. Thanks to integrated composite parts produced via multiple molding processes, the “perfect position seat” optimizes comfort by cradling the upper back and providing side-torso support, which flexes to accommodate various occupant sizes. The system, for which 83 patents have been filed, reduces total seat weight by 8 percent and cost by 15 percent, despite adding more features.

Magna engineers are also working on “smart” seats that can monitor a driver’s heart rate to determine whether he is getting drowsy. Sensors embedded in the cushion and backrest gather biometric data without the need for body electrodes.

The technology is intended for use in the first-generation of self-driving cars, which are expected to be on the road within the next decade. They will require monitoring devices to make sure that drivers are ready to regain control of a vehicle if necessary.

Other Tier One suppliers are also working on smart seating. For instance, at the recent Paris Motor Show, Faurecia showcased its Active Wellness 2.0 seat that measures various biological and behavioral points through a network of sensors and optical devices. It can monitor things such as blinking, body movement or fidgeting, eye gaze, facial expressions, head tilt, heart rate, humidity, percentage of eye closure, and respiration rate.

“Through sensors, Active Wellness 2.0 collects and analyzes biological data and remembers the driver’s behaviors and preferences, allowing it to predict how the driver will be most comfortable based on his physical condition, time of day, travel conditions, and whether [the vehicle is] in semiautonomous or autonomous mode,” says Philippe Aumont, chief technology officer at Faurecia Automotive Seating. “Then, the seat system applies countermeasures pertaining to detected motion sickness, stress, discomfort, drowsiness and readiness to operate controls.

“Data gathered on the driver’s condition is translated into a variety of personalized actions and therapies that include adjusting the seat position; a five-program massage capability; seat ventilation; and changes in ambient lighting or the audio environment,” adds Aumont.