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Whiplash protection creates fresh challenge for car seat designers

Whiplash creates fresh challenge for car seat designers
Tristan Honeywill

When people talk about the feel of a car’s handling, acceleration and comfort, how many appreciate that a lot of the feel-good factor arrives via the car seat? It can take good performance to another level. The same goes for safety. Crash structure, airbags and seatbelts are all essential, but the seat’s design can make all the difference, particularly when it comes to whiplash protection.

It’s particularly obvious in the most common type of injury-accident: a whiplash-causing rear-impact. Euro NCAP only started assessing the seats in 2008 and awareness is still growing when it comes to how important car seat design is to whiplash.

Looking at the whiplash test results from Euro NCAP, it seems that active head restraints – head rests that react to a crash, moving to support the head in a crash – aren’t essential. The seats with the highest scores are these days all “passive” systems that drivers position themselves. Not everybody in the industry agrees these really do offer the best protection in the real world, however.

Oliver Alber, an innovation director at car interior and electronics specialist Johnson Controls, is one of the car seat company’s whiplash experts. Besides the safety requirements, there are some pretty tough targets for the seat’s cost, weight, comfort and styling. Naturally, everybody wants it cheaper, lighter, more comfortable and more stylish, not just safer. “In terms of development, it can be as challenging to develop a seat for a one-star car as for a five-star car, depending on the different priorities given to cost and safety targets,” says Alber.

 “We’re developing and promoting active systems to allow for maximum safety and comfort”

Oliver Alber, innovation director at Johnson Controls

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According to Johnson Controls, there are 47 different design parameters that can influence a seat’s performance in a rear impact. Of these 13 rank as top priority: things like the seat’s metal structure, the foam and the head restraint. The key, however, is having something that positions the head restraint just behind the head during a crash.

“We believe the best solution for safety and comfort is still an active system,” he says. “These work regardless of how they are actually positioned by the occupant, which is not the case with normal passive head restraints.”

The Euro NCAP assessment allows the seat to be tested in a favourable position for whiplash protection. Not everybody drives with the head support in the right place, however. “We’re developing and promoting active systems to allow for maximum safety and comfort,” says Alber.

Euro NCAP plans to start assessing the rear seats for whiplash protection next year. One of the main things for them is that the head support should encourage people to position it properly when they sit down. “We have developed different concepts for this,” says Alber. “Some force the occupant to put the head restraint in a favourable position, some fulfil the requirements without adjustment.”

Alber sees safety becoming more and more important for all automakers in the coming years: “For many buyers, having a car with a good safety reputation is an important part of their decision,” he says. “Typically the legal requirements are not the biggest challenge: it’s the consumer research requirements from organisations such as Euro NCAP and ADAC.”

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