Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – Auto makers and suppliers long have endeavored to shave weight from all areas of a vehicle, including the interior.

That goal becomes even more important following President Obama’s mandate this week calling for fleet fuel economy of 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) by 2016. Cars must average 39 mpg (6.0 L/100 km) and light trucks 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km).

Jeff Corkins, chief engineer-research and development for Magna International Inc.’s seating division, says his company has been working on lightening components since consumers began migrating toward smaller vehicles several years ago.

“In 2006, we saw 6% of SUV owners downsize,” he tells attendees of the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here. “Last year it was 21%. We see that trend continuing, but (consumers) still need to fit the same amount of stuff and people (in their vehicles). It’s a challenge.”

One way to do that is to expand the amount of interior space in smaller vehicles by focusing on reducing seat mass.

In today’s vehicles, the inner mechanisms and frame account for two-third of seat mass, he says.

But formerly “exotic” materials, such as high-strength and ultra-high-strength steel, are finding their way into seating applications, resulting in a lighter-weight seat without sacrificing strength.

Other materials, such as extruded aluminum, also show promise in reducing seat mass but are not necessarily the ideal solution, as “steel components still need to be added,” Corkins says.

Magna has had some success with diecast magnesium, which it used to create the innovate seats in Chrysler LLC’s current-generation minivans. But that material suffers from low ductility, porosity and volatile pricing, and it requires secondary machining.

Molded magnesium may prove more promising. In a semi-solid state, the lightweight material can be formed using a process similar to plastic injection-molding, Corkins says, noting the material produces a high-quality surface and boasts excellent dimensional precision.

Magna also has been working with various polymers and composites, which could result in a reduction in the number of seat parts, maximizing interior space.

In addition to alternative materials, seats could be made thinner.

“Thin seats add value by improving space in a (smaller) car,” Corkins notes. “You see them in concepts, but not in production. We’re pursuing them heavily and looking at technologies that enable thin seats.”

Inspiration for weight reduction can be found in the aerospace industry, where every ounce shaved can improve aircraft performance, says William Harney, executive director-research and development for Magna subsidiary Decoma International.

“When you take mass out of components, operating loads are lower,” he says. “We’re looking at sensible structure design.”

Creating environmentally friendly components also is important to Decoma, Harney says, noting the supplier is eying increased use of natural fibers and woods.

Faurecia North America, a producer of automotive interior components, employs a weight-reduction strategy dubbed “Light Attitude Innovation,” says Rob Huber, vice president-marketing and design.

Innovations developed by Faurecia have the potential to shave some 66 lbs. (30 kg) from a vehicle, he says. If the weight-savings were applied to a large-volume model, some 11 million barrels of oil would be saved over the life of the platform.

To demonstrate its technologies, Faurecia created the Light Attitude Concept interior, which features a self-supporting instrument panel and the generous use of natural fibers, including a soft center console.

In place of a traditional center stack, the concept boasts a “smart dock” that integrates devices such as an iPhone into the vehicle’s display panel.

“It uses the iPhone to eliminate the radio and can download (new) features,” he says.

The concept also has thin seats with exposed structures for a futuristic appearance.

With the demand for greater fuel economy and consumer migration toward smaller vehicles, it’s “never been a better time to talk about reinventing the interior of the vehicle,” Huber says.

bpope@wardsauto.com