Auto Miscellanea

Relieving Back Pain -- One Drive at a Time

By Luigi Fraschini for Driving Today

According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, back pain ranks second only to headaches as the most frequent cause of pain, and one of the leading causes of this discomfort is the increased amount of time that Americans are spending in their vehicles. A University of California study revealed that the average driver spends 101 minutes per day on the road, and 50 percent of drivers report that they experience lower back pain. This led Ford to completely rethink the way it designs its seats.

“People are spending more time in their vehicles and continually touch the seats, which is why it has become increasingly important to ensure their seat is both comfortable and supportive,” says Mike Kolich, Ford’s seat comfort engineer. “We are designing our seats so when drivers and passengers arrive at their destinations, they are relaxed and ready to go.”

Kolich is a member of the global seating team that was established in 2005 to bring the development of industry-leading seats in-house at Ford. The team creates seats that ensure drivers and passengers are comfortable whether they are in Detroit, Paris, Rio de Janeiro or Beijing. When the team of engineers (three each in Europe and Brazil, seven in North America, and one in Asia) studied customer data in each region, they learned that many of their old assumptions about seats were wrong.

“We used to think Europeans liked aggressively shaped seats with firm cushions, while Americans preferred flat, cushy seats,” says Kolich. “The reality is that regardless of the size and shape of a driver’s backside, they tend to value roughly the same characteristics when it comes to comfort. European drivers actually wanted somewhat more cushioning than previously thought, while Americans wanted better support.”

After running thousands of tests with drivers and passengers around the world, the team was able to quantify a set of common standards that would provide more comfort -- no matter where people drive a Ford vehicle. The challenge was to build seats that hold occupants in place, increase interior roominess and contribute to the goal of reducing vehicle weight. While working on the seats for the new 2013 Ford Escape, Kolich studied dozens of chairs used outside of the automotive industry for ideas about what makes a seat comfortable for long periods of time.

“If you look at the advancements in office chairs from the 1960s (when luxury meant big, puffy cushions) to where they are now (with thin, ergonomic chairs that still feel luxurious), it’s definitely a major change in the way seats are designed,” he says.

By using the same computer simulation tools available to crash safety engineers, the team has developed an award-winning, world-class front seat structure that is 10 percent lighter, meets global requirements and provides enhanced functionality. This work has resulted in seven Ford-exclusive patent applications to date. The all-new 2013 Escape is the first Ford vehicle with a global seat architecture that is specifically designed to conform to the new Ford seat DNA.

So how different are they from the seats in other vehicles? When viewed from above, other seat backs typically have a U-shape, where the main central portion of the cushion is flat with side bolsters emerging from the outer edges. A driver with a torso that is the same width as the seat would be properly restrained during cornering maneuvers, but a thinner driver could find him or herself sliding toward the outer bolster when going around a curve. The new Escape seats feature a V-shape contour that self-centers the driver much as a ball rolling down a V-shaped groove will tend to settle toward the center. Whatever the size or shape of the driver in the 2013 Escape, that person will find him or herself centered in front of the steering wheel and instrument panel and properly positioned relative to the airbags in the event of a crash. In addition, slimmer seat backs and optimized cushions contribute to increased foot and knee room for rear-seat passengers.

After the seats were designed, Ford engineers weren’t through. They had to make certain that the new design passed the test, so comfort evaluations were conducted using a turntable with five different seats mounted on it. Testers sat down on a seat and gave a subjective rating, and then the turntable rotated to bring the next seat around. All of these efforts are paying off, as the survey conducted by the Global Quality Research System shows that satisfaction with Ford seats rose steadily between 2005 and 2010. Now the new Escape seats hope to kick it up another notch.

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is a Driving Today contributing editor who writes frequently about consumer issues regarding automobile ownership.

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