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Buckle Up: Test Driving Comfort Technology Of Vehicle Seats

Have you ever taken that long car ride where you just can’t wait to get out? You say something along the lines of, “Ah my back is killing me” as you reach for the sky and hear every joint SNAP and POP. You know exactly what I am talking about, and so does Northern Illinois University professor Jay Kim.

This problem plagues almost all of us. Kim is working on a solution by studying the long-term health benefits of a massage feature in vehicle seats -- specifically in the areas of ergonomics, physiology, and biomechanics.

Kim advertised for test subjects, and my editor thought I would make an excellent guinea pig. I got ahold of Kim and made the arrangements.  

Kim’s experiment centers on the massage feature built into the test seats. Who wouldn’t like a good massage while they are driving -- especially one that can benefit your long-term health? Sounds like a win-win situation to me. Kim understands this as well.

“Previous research studies have shown the massage can reduce the musculoskeletal pain,” Kim said, “and also increase the metabolism rates as well as the tissue oxygenation for a musculoskeletal system.”

Of course, everyone is different and we might not always experience the same degrees of comfort. As a matter of fact, Kim says several factors can play a significant role in how comfort is perceived. They include age, body mass index, height, weight, and injury history.

Kim said the seats used in the experiment were luxury car seats. That’s out of my budget range, but the practical implication for average consumers could be invaluable.

And the components associated with this experiment do not come cheap. The system that would monitor my body was valued between $15,000 and $20,000, and I couldn’t help but imagine how much the luxury seats and driving simulation cost in addition to that system.

“If we can find that there are any benefits to having these kinds of functions, especially for the professional drivers like taxi drivers, since they are spending really long hours in their driver seat,” Kim said, “it would be nice to recommend those as an engineering control to reduce musculoskeletal discomfort.”

Everyday commercial versions of these seats may be a possibility for the future, Kim acknowledges that his experiment is in very early stages of development. “A lot of experimental clinical studies have shown that professional drivers are suffering from lower back pain,” Kim said, “which is the number-one cause for the Worker’s Compensation (claims).”  He also says lower-back pain is one of the leading causes of permanent disabilities.

The experiment began with a simple application of sensors to my lower back and my shoulders to track 

Sensors attached to Epstein detect heat and muscle movement

  heat and muscle activity. The sensors were then connected to a box that I was instructed to hold. I must admit I felt a little silly at first, but I realized even journalists have to make sacrifices for science.

I asked Kim if these sensors would shock me at all, and he assured me they would not. According to Kim, I was now adequately prepared for the experiment.

Kim informed me that there normally would be more components to the experiment but, due to the fact that I was a pre-study pilot subject, not all of the components had been installed yet -- the largest being a monitor to simulate actual driving.

He led me to two automotive seats, one manufactured by Audi and the other an undisclosed prototype. The intent is for the 20 subjects who actually will take part in the test to compare and contrast the two seats – to be labeled A or B -- for comfort duration.

Aside from the absent driving simulators, Kim treated me as he would any other volunteer test subject. For the sake of getting the full experience, I imagined a driver’s education simulation screen in front of me to better understand Kim’s concept.

The first seat was the prototype seat, which was covered in a green gridded mat. This is the system that I mentioned earlier with a hefty price tag. As I sat down, Kim electronically adjusted the seat for me to a position that I would use in an actual driving situation.

2 test seats with massage technology (From left to right: Audi manufactured, and Prototype seat)

Once I was comfortable, he explained exactly what those sensors and the green mat were doing. Kim loaded a program on his computer for me to see a real-time mapping of my body movement in the seat, illustrated by several blue pixelated boxes. It was actually pretty interesting to see.

He then switched to a line graph that displayed my pressure points. When Kim started the massage feature on the seat, I instantly saw unique movements of my body on the computer screen. It was actually quite relaxing.

Kim said the movements in the seats were caused by inflating air bladders in a pattern modeled after hand movements of professional massage therapists. He also explained the inflatable bags promote better comfort while driving compared to those hard plastic balls that many of us have grown familiar with. Kim says the balls could cause more discomfort after prolonged use while driving.

To help me better understand how the system worked, Kim stood me up and plugged my electrodes into a small box with a wave line. He had me roll and elevate my shoulders while resisting against his hand. I watched as the wave spiked in relation to my muscle movement.

Kim then guided me to the second seat to perform the same test. The feeling of the seat was clearly different. It was not as relaxed as the prototype seat. I sat in this seat for approximately 15 minutes with the massage feature activated.

I got an abbreviated version of the experiment, but his actual test subjects will be riding those car seats for nearly two and half hours.

Dr. Jay Kim in the vehicle seat testing area at NIU's College of Engineering and Engineering Technology. The green mat reads sensors that gauge body movement.

Kim officially started his research on Memorial Day and has completed the research on several test subjects. He said it’s too early to come to any definitive conclusions on the result of the experiment. 

Kim’s research is being funded by Faurecia, which provided the test seats in addition to an extra $10,000. Faurecia, which works closely with General Motors,  specializes in four areas of automotive components -- including automotive seating. According to the group, “Faurecia is the world’s number one supplier of seat frames and mechanisms, emissions control technologies and vehicle interiors.”

Perhaps someday I will be driving home in my future car with a standard issue massage seat. I hope that I can look back and remember my day as Dr. Kim’s guinea pig and say, “I was at the very beginning of this.” Until then it looks like I’ll have to keep stretching, oh well I can still dream.