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Magna Seating VP on tomorrow's solutions

Although lighter car seats remains a focus of research, other developments in seating have been taking place much faster than may be apparent on the surface. Automakers are demanding greater differentiation in their seat designs while motorists look for greater functionality and luxury. Are we nearly there yet? Matthew Beecham caught up with Dino Nardicchio, global VP of advanced technology engineering for Magna Seating, to learn how seats are becoming safer but more supportive, versatile and pleasant to sit in with a multitude of hidden creature comforts. Do we also discuss parenting and toddlers kicking dad drivers in the back? Well yes. Obviously.

just-auto: Visions of autonomous car interiors typically resemble a campfire seating configuration. Aside from flexible seating, what features do you see for a Level 5 car?

Dino Nardicchio: We have spent a lot of time with end consumers, people that are actually using the vehicle, because seats are very consumer-centric, so it's interesting to get their perspective on things. I think a lot of the features that we're going to see in these types of vehicles are really going to be driven by the experience that the particular person is looking for. What I mean by that is there are going to be situations where people wish to achieve something while in a car, e.g. conduct a mobile client meeting. In that scenario, we're going to look for an interior that can enable connectivity, displays to facilitate conference calls, etc. For that particular experience, you can only envision what would be in that kind of a vehicle, and obviously to help facilitate the collaboration we would definitely see the seats configuring in a way almost as if everyone is seated around a conference room table.

That is one experience that we see and hear about from consumers. But then there is the other extreme which is, 'I just want to rest and relax.' In that kind of situation, given they have idle time, they would expect to be able to rest, take a nap, read a book, have their own personal space. In that situation, we wouldn't see campfire mode but expect to see the seats all staggered such that everybody has their own little cocoon and nobody's facing each other, encroaching on personal space per se.

Then in the campfire mode, there's definitely a desire when you're with your family, as an example, to be able to face each other and tell stories and talk about their day and do homework or play games or go to grandma's house and do some interactive things along the way. There isn't a one-size-fits-all in what we're seeing. It really is about the experience and what type of situation the consumers are in because their lives change throughout the day. So it's all about the ability to enable those experiences to occur in a very seamless, intuitive, simple way.

Just a couple of things about a Level 5 Car's seating positions and how those seats would behave in the event of a crash. What are Magna's thoughts on that?

DN: There's no doubt that it is all about safety, especially when we're talking about this level of sophistication from the vehicle itself. There is a lot of work that has obviously been done, not only to make the car travel safely but to make sure that the people inside are safe. When we start talking about seats that reconfigure, that is always a topic that's top of mind, especially when we talk about seats that are not facing forward or rearward but facing cross-car. We've had experience, we're fortunate enough to have brought to market as an example a fully validated forward and rearward facing swivelling seat. We did this back in 2008 for Chrysler. In that situation, we were able to bring a product that met all the safety standards for both its forward-facing mode, and then you could swivel 180 degrees to face rearward, and it was fully validated for that as well.

So, we have some experience with this, but as we now start to deviate and go, cross-car, transverse to the direction of motion, there are a lot of factors that come into play with airbags and the location of the seats and the restraint system. Those are definitely things that we are investigating as we start working with customers that want to go down that path. We are going to work with them to ensure that the consumers, the people in these vehicles are safe. It is a very challenging situation to try to anticipate and be prepared for.

As we started to understand the space, even in the traditional forward-facing vehicles, there are concerns or issues with consumers today getting motion sickness when they're not able to see the horizon or if their physiological readiness for a trip isn't there

Another area that's under the technical microscope is motion sickness and autonomous vehicles. How is Magna addressing that?

DN: It is a phenomenon that is prevalent in vehicles today. As we started to understand the space, even in the traditional forward-facing vehicles, there are concerns or issues with consumers today getting motion sickness when they're not able to see the horizon or if their physiological readiness for a trip isn't there. Sometimes we see that there are conditions that can start to manifest themselves just by virtue of passengers perhaps looking away from their vehicle, looking down or reading a book or doing something on their phone. So, as you would expect, that condition is only going to be exponentially greater if we actually start facing them in different directions and orientations. It's amazing the degree by which different people can tolerate or not tolerate that kind of motion.

We're seeing a lot of our OEM customers that are extremely tuned into this, as we start to identify what are the types of warning signals, what are the things that perhaps can identify that somebody is at the onset of motion sickness, and then to what degree can the vehicle mitigate that from continuing? So, is it a ride and handling situation? Is it a vibration situation with the suspension, or the speed of the vehicle? I think there are a lot of factors that come into play when you look at what it is that can be done to mitigate that I don't think it's a one-size or it's a one-sensor solution or one particular thing that can solve it. We're finding a lot of our customers that are definitely looking into this to understand what is it that they can do to ensure that anybody in these vehicles are going to have a pleasant experience.

Given the accent on tomorrow's car interior is becoming more about occupant comfort and health, how will that affect seat design? For example, can we expect to see more interaction between seat sensors and actuators in order to detect drowsiness and trigger massage functions, alarms?

DN: There's no doubt we see more sensors and more electronics coming into the vehicle interiors. You can see the trend as it's been year-over-year. Some of these sensors and electronics are there to provide active safety in regard to how the occupant is positioned. Where is the seat positioned? Some of it's with regard to passive safety, so it's improving the restraint systems and the airbag performance. Then some, as you mentioned, are more about helping support a better comfort experience, whether it's physical comfort, thermal comfort, and then helping provide more convenience, the way in which seats can actually be reconfigured.

But again, when we're talking about health and wellness and we're talking about the different types of electronic systems, there's probably more being done in the way in which you can synthesise data from multiple sensors. So, there is a lot happening in the way in which we fuse data from multiple sensors to determine perhaps what to do, whether it's for active safety, passive safety and the like.

Our seating group recently set out to understand the hearts and minds of SUV consumers globally.

We hear that Magna is developing SUV and minivan seats that can be configured with the touch of a smartphone screen. Could you tell us more about that and your consumer research?

DN: Our seating group recently set out to understand the hearts and minds of SUV consumers globally. We went out and engaged with them in Los Angeles, California; Columbus, Ohio; Manchester, England; Hamburg, Germany; and Guangzhou and Yuanzhou, China. We literally would go into these families' homes, go with them on trips, watch their pre-trip process, go with them to drop the kids off at school and then go to the grocery store. It was really amazing how little people understood, the lack of knowledge about the specific seat functions and how their seats worked. So, seat controls and features, it was amazing how many of those were invisible to consumers. They just didn't understand, not only what their seats could do, but how to do it.

That was one of the insights that prompted us to really determine how it is that we could provide a better experience in the way in which we could allow people to adjust their seats, but in a very simple intuitive motion, so one-step, one-handle, one-button, and do some very complex things.

At the 2019 CES, we showcased how you could use your smartphone to create three completely different interior environments all through a simple seat phone app.

That's what we found to be the holy grail of still providing the ability for consumers to personalise that interior, to get the seat to do one thing and something else, but do it in a super simple way. The smartphone was one of the solutions that came out of that [research] because obviously, people are very comfortable in using their phone to do things. So, it was a solution that we thought made sense and it really resonated. At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, we showcased how you could literally use your smartphone to create three completely different interior environments all through a simple seat phone app.

There's another product that we brought to market, as an example, that was still on that same topic, and that was the pitch slide seat. What we noticed with consumers was after they would install their child seat in the second row they were very reluctant to remove it because of the anxiety that's associated with making sure they put it in correctly. So if they had friends or family that they would want to go out and maybe have dinner with, they would never remove that child seat. Instead, they would make them either jump through, jump around the seat or come in through the boot. They would do all these other crazy acrobatics because they didn't want anything to do with moving the seat.

So, we brought to market in 2016 the pitch slide seat that allows families or consumers to attach a child seat into the second row. What we were able to do is through a pitching motion we could literally allow the consumer with one hand – one-handle, one-step – to pitch the seat forward towards the front of the vehicle and allow people to get in and out of the third row, and they didn't have to take the child seat out. It has resonated phenomenally in the States and we're seeing continued pull around the world as we start seeing the consumers seeing that, 'Hey, I can put these child seats in and I could leave them in and I can still provide a simple and easy way for my guests to get in and out of the third row.' So, yes, the beauty is just the fact that it's a one-step, one-handle operation. So, long answer to a very simple question.

If tomorrow's mobility is about sharing cars, what does that mean for seats in terms of design, surface materials, construction, flexibility, and ease of configurability?

DN: For shared mobility, that's one of the primary trends that we're monitoring. Shared mobility is a very dynamic and fast-paced area that we're studying. When we look at shared mobility, in particular, car sharing as you mentioned, there is an opportunity for consumers, rather than drive to work and let their car sit in a parking lot all day, to literally rent their car out rather than let it sit idle. And so what we see is a situation where consumers are going to be able to, as an example, lend out their vehicle, perhaps to a local delivery company who perhaps has all their service vehicles out on the road, and they perhaps have a couple of deliveries they'd like to make, and so what they'll do is be able to literally come and summon your vehicle and use your car to make some deliveries.

So, by enabling them to reconfigure your interior, as an example, possibly through that phone app that I described, we've created some technologies that would enable the seats to reconfigure. We're developing what we call a long rail, and that allows the ability for these seats to literally take any position in the car, from the very front all the way to the back. And so we've been able to maximise what's possible in terms of reconfiguring seats. So that's possibly something that would be of value to the consumer that wants to share the car, and this delivery company can make a local delivery and return the car back to the parking lot at the office where the owner lives or is working, just the way they left it. So, it's a very interesting model. I think some consumers are looking at the fact that 'Hey, I can make a couple of bucks, maybe help out my local community,' and it helps everybody out.

To the point you made, the other thing that we anticipate, whether it's ride-sharing or car-sharing or any of these autonomous shuttles, it's the fact that by far and away I think one of the biggest challenges is going to be the cleanability aspect in terms of how do they enable the interiors to stay clean and fresh? We have brought forth recently the FreeFORM technology. What's exciting about that is it really enables the ability for our customers to refresh the entire seat surface in seconds, because we can enable them to remove the seat surface with a zipper, they can take the top of the seat off, put a new top on via a zipper, and they can wash the topper that is removed.

It's an interesting technology because it does a lot of things, but that's one of the benefits that we see, because we've been talking to some of our customers who are considering going into this new mobility space, and their directive to us has been, 'We really want to minimise the amount of time any of these vehicles or shuttles are in the depot. We make money where they're on the road, so what is that you can help us do to make certain that, whether it's to come in for some scheduled service time, that we can get these cars cleaned and back on the road as fast as possible?'

We see a big pull in Asia and China for personalisation. We're not seeing it in the States and we didn't see a lot of it in Europe.

Individualisation is a growth market that offers potential for differentiation. How is Magna responding to that?

DN: I think it's, to some degree individualisation or personalisation, and I think there's a difference. On the personalisation point, it was fascinating in China because, to be honest, it was amazing the degree to which people try to personalise their vehicle. It was only because as we started talking about FreeFORM as an example for cleanability, we've had some customers talk to us about the fact, 'Well, in all honesty, in China we think we can actually provide the FreeFORM as a way to help them personalise their vehicle and so they can actually make the seats reflect who they are in terms of the different types of graphics.'

We see a big pull in Asia and China for personalisation. We're not seeing it in the States and we didn't see a lot of it in Europe.

Now, when we talk about individualisation, clearly I think there are things that are more front of mind when it comes to the ability to provide personalised settings or individual settings. I think a lot of the things that we found with talking to consumers was seat comfort. For example, when we actually tallied the top pain points or problem statements with all our global research, the two things that resonated in the top 10 were comfort and cleanability. Seats just didn't provide enough ideal personalised comfort, and it really lacked where people felt they needed it.

So, as we go forward with the ability of people becoming more connected with their vehicles, I definitely see a situation where consumers are going to connect their profile to their vehicle where the seat position, perhaps the temperature settings, the way that they want the seats configured, all that can happen before they even get to their car. That is more of the individualisation piece than the personalisation per se.

In terms of the seat structure, to what extent is there a greater use of aluminium (or steel and aluminium combined) in manufacturing either the front or rear seats?

DN: The biggest driver of what we package and engineer is driven by cost.

What we have seen, and we've been fortunate that we have been able to bring pretty much most if not all of the exotic and semi-exotic materials to market. We have experience with magnesium, with aluminium, obviously with steel. I would say by and large, now I'm talking mass-market applications, I think the biggest driver of what we package and engineer is driven by cost. Seats are very commoditised, and the structures within are as well. So, what we're finding is that we have to be extremely competitive not only in weight but cost by taking advantage of the latest generation of advanced and ultra-high-strength steels. They enable us to really come up with thin sections, thin profiles, very cost-effective. Most of our customers, again I'm talking mass-market applications, are seeing value in being able to provide a very cost-competitive product that's extremely competitive when it comes to weight.

So, we're taking advantage of technologies, as an example, through our sister group that's responsible for body and chassis, and we can do some pretty extraordinary things like hot stamping, and even roll forming. A lot of our mechanisms that we roll form are using extremely advanced and high strength steels, extremely thin wall sections, and we're able to bring very weight effective solutions that are not cost prohibitive. We're finding this is really striking a chord with most of our customers that are in the mass market space.

Can I say that for the performance-driven product that's acceptable? No, we still have customers that are bringing very performance-oriented vehicles to market, more niche, in which they do want the weight reduction for the driving performance aspect of it.

So we're talking magnesium there?

DN: Yes, and that's where the aluminium and the magnesiums come into play. But we have put those in mass market vehicles as well. What we have found, however, for the mass market customers the market volatility of some of those materials is too much for them to stomach. So, we've oftentimes gone back to the advanced and the ultra-high strength steels because as a commodity the market is much more stable from a market price standpoint, and very competitive. So, we've done both, and so I continue to see both getting into the market. But when it comes to the mass market applications, what we're finding is that the cost to weight ratio really continues to want to bring forward these advanced and ultra-high strength steels.

Dino Nardicchio

Dino Nardicchio joined Magna in 1997 and currently holds the role as Global Vice President of Advanced Technology Engineering for Magna Seating. In this role, he is Magna Seating's innovation and product portfolio strategy champion. Responsible for consumer research, core product management, OEM engagement, new business development engineering and benchmarking activities.

During his time at Magna, Nardicchio held many positions including product engineer, product manager, chief engineer, group director, executive director and global vice president of research and development before becoming Global Vice President of Advanced Technology Engineering.

Before joining Magna Seating, Nardicchio worked eight years for General Motors in various positions, including a two-year project working in Italy.

Nardicchio has a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Michigan Technological University and a master of science in engineering from Purdue University. He is a certified design for Six Sigma Champion and speaks Italian.

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