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Design Parameters for Comfortable

and Safe Vehicle Seats

Ronald L. Huston and Ashraf M. Genaidy

University of Cincinnati

Reprinted from: Progress with Human Factors in Automotive Design:

Seating Comfort, Visibility, and Safety

The Engineering Society International Congress & Exposition

Advancing w b , i t y
Sea Air and S ~ a c e , Detroit, Michigan
February 24-27,1997
400 Commonwealth Drive, Warrendale, PA 15096-0001 1I.S.A. Tel: (412)776-4841 Fax:(412)776-5760
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Design Piarameters for Comfortable

and Safe Vehicle Seats
Ronald L. Huston and Ashraf M. Genaidy
University of Cincinnati

Copyright 1997 Society of Automotive Engineers. Inc.

growing knowledge bank regarding occupant

kinematics and injuries during accidnts, and
This paper discusses design parameters for improved understanding of spinal instability and low
automotive seats intended to simultaneously meet back pain. The feasilbility of the designs is made
three design objectives: comfort, safety, and health. possible by advances in seat materials and the
("Health" refers to long-term spinal support and underlying support mechanisms.
vibration attenuation.)
Modern seat design is an interdisciplinary
For comfort, various ergonomic and human task relying upon the latest advances in biodynamic
factors considerations are discussed ranging from modeling, in ergonontics and human factors, and in
seat dimensions and adjustments to cushioning and structural mechanics. In the past twenty years there
occupant perceptions of comfort. For safety, the have been dramatic advances in biodynamic
principal consideration is the effectiveness of the modeling of vehicle occupants, mostly made
seat in providing spinal support during accident* possible by advances in computer technology.
particularly in rear-end collisions. An additional Correspondingly ther~eare growing collections of
safety consideration is the ability of the seat to keep data describing occulpant response to various
an occupant 'in position' during an accident. stimuli. A number of survey articles have even been
Finally, for health concerns, the focus is upon written documenting these modeling and knowledge
maintenance of spinal stability, seat ergonomics, and advances. [See for example, Huston (1977, 1987:),
road induced vibration attenuation. King (1984), King and Chou (1976), Prasad (1984),
and Genaidy (1997).]
The paper presents design parameters
satisfying these design objectives. These In a recent aflicie Broman, et al. (1996)
parameters include seat dimensions and their presented a model of the spine, pelvis, and buttocks
adjustments; cushioning for vibration suppression; for studying vibration transfer through seat bottoms.
fabric design to help maintain occupant position Earlier spine models include the works of Pope, et
during periods of high acceleration; back rest al. (1987, 1989), Orne and U u (1971), Panjabi (1973),
strength for thoracic and lumbar spine protection; Soechting and Paslay (1973), Prasad and King
and head rest geometry for cervical spine protection. (1974), Cramer, et al. (1976), Belytschko and
Privitzef (1978), Bartz (1992), Huston, et a1. (1974,
1976), and Robbins, t?tal. (1974). These models
range from being relatively elementary and
In recent years there has been a growing simplistic, having as few as one degree of freedom,
interest in automotive seat design. This interest has to elaborate lumped parameter, finite element, and
been stimulated by three concerns: 1) a consumer continuous models.
demand for comfort and convenienc+especially with
the continuing downsizing of cars; 2) an ever The ergonomiics and human factors of seat
increasing interest in safety; and 3) a desire for design has been studlied extensively by furniture
improved low back support and better human factors designers and manufacturers. For automotive seats
of seat design. These interests are on occasion the requirements are more restrictive, but many of
viewed as being in opposition to one another- the same principles apply. In his handbook,
particularly comfort and safety. I n this paper we Woodward (1981) presents a summary of geometric
present seat design parameters intended to address and physical parameters of automotive seats, from a
each of the concerns but without being in conflict human factors perspc?ctive.
with each other.
From a more general viewpoint, however,
In developing the proposed designs we have considering concerns for comfort, safety,
used principles of human factors engineering, a ergonomics, shock and vibration resistance, and
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other human factora interests, the optimal seat 5. The seat bottom should be between 300
design parameters are less clear. Recently Genaidy, to 330 mm (12 to 13 in) high to enable the operator
et al. (1997) have developed a regression based to engage the foot controls.
model for evaluating the strength and damage of
lumbar spine segments. Long term effects of 6. The back rest, aside from the head rest,
vibfations and impact on spine health and spine should be at least 510 mm (20 in) high.
stabiiiy are still being studied. Similarly, optimal
seat design to guard agalnst injury from Impact Is 7. The seat bottom should have at least 200
not well established. While the hazards of rigid mm (8 in) fore-aft adjustment.
seats have been identified [see for example James,
et al. (1991) and Warner, et al. (lssl)], the hazards The underlying principle for these
of rapidly deforming seats have been Identified as requirements is that the seats must be able to
well [see Saczalski, et a1. (1993)l. From a human conveniently accommodate persons of various sizes
factors/ biomechanics perspective, what is needed ranging from 5th percentile females to 95 percentile
are energy and vibration absorbing seats which do males. Figure 1 provides a sketch showing th~ese
not disrupt the spinal configuration and the spinal dimensions.
geometry. These concepts are discussed in the


In recent years with the downsizing of

automobiles, together with increased mileage life
and higher initial costs, consumers have developed
raised expectations regarding vehicle performance,
fuel economy, reduced maintenance, better handling
characteristics, improved safety, and greater
comfort. Aside from the suspension system, the
principal vehicle component affecting comfort is the
seating system.

Although 'comfort' is to some extent

subjective, the ability to functions while sitting in an Figure 1. Seating Dimensions for Good Posture and
automobile seat, particularly as an operator, is not
subjective. indeed, several geometric criteria have Support [see Woodson (1981)l
long been established as standards of good posture
and support. These are [see, for example, Woodson
(198l)l: The challenge lacing the automobile seat
designer is to satisfy these criteria while meeting the
1. The seat bottom should be tined rearward objectives of comfort, safety, and ergonomics. For
approximately 5 degrees so that the upper torso comfort, this requires cushioning providing softness
weight is parlially supported by the back rest. while still providing the firmness needed to m~eetthe
geometric criteria. For operators, good posture Is
2, The angle between the seat bottom and also generally perceived as being good comfo~rt. For
the backrest should be approximately 105 degrees passengers, a reclining back rest may be desired for
SO that the torso will be in contact with the back rest, comfort in sleeping or resting, but for safety
but without causing the occupant to excessively lean purposes the reclined position should be avoided
forward to balance his or her head. while the vehicle is in motion unless adequate!
restraint is provided to guard against injury during
3. The seat bottom and back rest should be an accident.
at least 485 mm (19 in) wide so that large occupants
will not 'lap ovef, out of the seat. SAFETY

4. The fore-aft seat bottom length should be In the current decade there is no area of
approximately 430 mm (17 in) long to provide automobile development which has received as much
adequate support to the occupant thighs, but without attention as safety. But safety components (such as
contacting the calves. seat belts and airbags) are often regarded as being
expensive, inconvenient, and even uncomfortable. For
seats, however, such representations are unfounded.
Moreover, since seats form the principal contact
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between the occupant and the vehicle, they play a rest need to be energy absorbing but rotation resistant.
major role in occupant protection in the event of an These 0b~e~atiOns srlggest the following designs:
1. The frame of the back rest should be
Safety components work by reducing resistant to rotation. The Federal Motor Vehide Safety
decelerations (and, hence. also forces) in the event of Standard (FMVSS) 20'7 states that the back rest should
an accident. This is the case for seats, seat belts, be able to withstand a rearward moment of 3300 inch
airbags, and even to some extent for collapsing steering pounds or a rearward force equal to 20 times the weight
wheels and steering cdumns. Safety components can of the back rest [see Code of Federal Regulations
fail to work if they either fail to reduce deceleration or if (199t)j. These are minimum standards and may not
they in and of themsdves produce injuries, as for provide a rotation resistant back rest in foreseeable rear
example with seat belts across the neck, premature end collisions, depending upon the severity of the
airbag deployment, and rapidly collapsing seat back collision and the occu,pant weight.
rests and seat bottoms.
2. The seat must gradually reduce rearward
The most common accidents are front and rear occupant velocity relative to the vehicle. This may be
collisions. For such accidents the seat is instrumental in accomplished by viscc~lasticand viscoplastic padding
reducing injury causing forces. in frontal collisions, the together with seat rail shock absorbers.
occupant is thrown forward in the vehicle, tending to
come off the seat and potentially collide with the 3. The seat fabric should be sufficiently skid
steering wheel, the steeriny cdumns, the dashboard, resistant with ribbing to keep the occupant in position
and/or the windshield. The principal method of restraint
in frontal collisions is through the seat bdts. But if the 4. The seat must have a head rest which is not
seat bottom is not firm, or if the lap portion of the belt is dependent upon active occupant adjustment and which
not properly positioned on the pelvis, the occupant may provides cervical spine stability.
slide under the belt ("submarinem) and then Incur
abdominal injury. Thus a safety design characteristic for ERGONOMICS AND HUMAN FACTORS
a seat is a firm seat bottom. A firm bottom will aiso
provide ergonomic benefits of good visibility, spinal While seat comfort is subjective and while seat
stability, and fatigue reduction. In addition, the seat safety is specialized for the rare but foreseeable event of
bottom fabric should be skid resistant. an accident. seat ergonomics is neither subjective nor
specialized. but instead is measurable as well as being
In rear end cdlisions the seat is the principal of both immediate and long term importance. Seat
safety component. If the head rest fails, the occupant ergonomics can affect not only the way an occupant
can receive hyperextensior~injury. Ifthe back rest can ride in or operate ia vehicle, but aiso the health of
cdlapses. the occupant can receive lumbar or thoracic the spine and the internal organs.
spine injury. Also, a collapsing back rest may form a
ramp allowing the occupant to be projected toward the There are several generally accepted size and
rear of the vehicle and subjected to potential head and shape standards for automobile seats [see for examve,
neck injury [see for example. Saczalski, et al. (1993)l. Woodson (1981)]. Figure 1 shows typical seat
For vehicle operators, a cdlapsing back rest may cause dimensions. Obse~ethat the seat bottom is only about
the operator to lose contrd of the vehicle. Some a foot above the floor pan. This is somewhat less than
investigators have indicated, however, that rigid back most house or office furniture so that there will be less
rests may themselves induce injuries in rear end pressure on the back of the legs, allowing an operator
collisions [see for example. James. et al. (1991). to effectively exercise tlhe foot controls, and reducing
Warner. et al.. (1991), and Blaisdell, et al. (1993)]. the threat of phlebitis.

This raises the question as to how seat back Seat ergonomics also directly affect comfort
rests should be designed to best provide protection ,and safety. For example, the seat position (fore-aft)and
against injuries in rear end collisions. The answer lies lback rest orientation need to be adjustable to
within the principle of reduced occupant deceleration. ,accommodate a broad class of occupants ranging fr<om
Specifically, the seat needs to increase the time during !5th percentile females to 95th percentile males. The
vehicle occupant velocity changes occur while maintain- :seat belts should be integral to the seats so that uniform
ing the posture of the occupant. Maintenance of and comfortable protection is provided for the entire
posture is important for preventing spinal injuries since (rangeof occupant sizes. (Since seat belt anchors on
the spine is most v~lneraMI3to injury in rear end the floor, door, and/or 0-pillar are fixed, an adjustable
collisions and specifically in shear deformation and :seat can induce varied protection and comfort for the
rotation [see for example, Dorr, et al. (1982) and Roof different sized users.)
(1960)l. This in turn means that the head rest and back
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The seat should provide good spine support and 3) Are they economical? To answer these
with a passive head rest that does not interfere with rear questions, consider first that whereas one might
view vision. The back rest should have fabric providing theoretically expect comforl and safety to be in
resistance to side sway for the occupant (such as conflict. in reality most of the safety features (for
vertical ribs). example, skid resistant fabric and seat belt
positioning) are also comforl features. I n like
Finally, and of great importance, the seat manner, ergonomic features such as vibration
cushion should anenuate vibrations - particularly in the attenuation and cushioning are also compatible with
4 to 6 Hz range. [Pope, et al. (1987 and 1989) have comforl and safety.
shown that 4 to 6 Hz incite a natural mode of oscillation
for seated occupants.] The seat should provide shock Regarding practicaliy and economics the
absorption not only from high accelerations as in answers are less clear. Consider, however, that new
accidents but also from roadway bumps and pavement engineering materials have enhanced performance
irregularities. characteristics while in many cases at lower
manufacturing costs. Consider furlher that while
SUMMARY *NO CONCLUSlCfflS safety features increase costs, the cost of serious or
disabling injury Is very high, especially for the
The foregoing analyses and observations injured person.
may be summarized in the following seat design
recommendations: What is clear is that seat design is a calmplex
process, still evolving and likely to see periodic
1. The seat bottom should be inclined advances even in the face of increasing constraints
rearward at about 5 degrees and the angle between of vehicle size and weight reductions, and even with
the seat bottom and the back rest should be continual pressure to reduce costs.
approximately 105 degrees.

2. The 8eat bottom should be at least 485

mm (I9 in) wide (left/right), approximately 430 mm Bariz, J.A.. 'Development and Validation of a
(17 in) long (forelan), and approximately 300 to 330 Computer Simulation of a Crash Victim in Three
mm (12 to 13 in) high. Dimensions,' Pmaxdings. I f 3 1 S&IW Car W I
CUM-, Society of Automotive Engineers,
3. m e seat bottom should have at least 200 Wanendale, PA, 1992, pp. 105-127.
mm (8 in) fore/aft adjustment.
Belytschko, T. and Privitzer, E., Theoqr and
4. The back rest, aside from the head rest, Application of a ThreeDimensional Model of the
should be at least 510 mm (20 in) high (above the Thoracolumbar Spine,' AM'alion Space and
seat bottom). Envionrnenta/ Medicine, Vol. 49, 1978, pp. 158.165.

5. The back rest should have a passive head Blaisdell, D.M., Levitt, A.E., and Varat, IM.S.,
rest, but the head rest should not interfere with rear 'Automotive Seat Design Concepts for Occupant
vision. Protection,' Seat ! i p e m Comfort and Safefj', Paper
930340, Society of Automotive Engineers,
6. The back rest should be resistant to Publication SP-963 Warrendale, PA 15096, 199:3, pp.
rotation, but the back rest and seat bottom should 109119.
gradually reduce rearward occupant velocity relative
to the vehicle in the event of a rear end collision. Broman, H., Pope, M.H., and Hansson, T., 'A
(This velocity reduction may be obtained by Mathematical Response of the Impact Response of
viscoelastic padding and shock absorbers.) the Seated Subject," Medical Engineenng Physics,
Vol. 18, NO. 5, 1996, pp. 410-419.
7. The seat fabric should be skid resistant.
Code of Federal Regulations 49 (1991)
8. The seat belts should be integral to the Transportation, Section 571.207, p. 438.
Cromer, H.J., Liu, Y.K. and von Rosenberg,
9. The seat cushion should alternate D.U., 'A Distributed Parameter Model of the inc?rtially
vibrations, particularly in the 4 to 6 Hz range. Loaded Human Spine,' Journal d Biomedmnios, Vol.
9, 1976, pp. 115-130.
Several questions arise as a result of these
recommendations: 1) Are these recommendations
compatible with each other? 2) Are they practical?
Downloaded from SAE International by University Of Newcastle, Thursday, August 09, 2018

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The Dynamic Response of a Subject Seated on