Your Car’s Seats Are Terrible and the Industry Knows It ""
Posted on: May 17, 2017

From the June 2017 issue

For reasons lost to history, we once thought dry land looked better than the ocean. Then one day the trees looked better than dry land. In time we got bored with the trees and decided to come down and give dry land another go, but this time walking upright.

That’s when it all went to hell for our backs. As my orthopedic surgeon explained, our spines were designed as bridges, to hang suspended like the Golden Gate between our hips and our shoulders. But the day we first rose up erect and faced our future as Homo sapiens, the spine became a tower with too much weight on it and not enough support around it. And for many of us, usually right around age 40 when the factory warranty lapses on the machine and the pounds start creeping on, the spine begins its painful slow-motion collapse.

Which is in no way helped by our life with cars. And, in my case, the planes I’ve flown on to see them and the vari­ous computers I’ve hunched over through the years to write about them. The vertebrae of our spines, and the discs between them that resemble jelly doughnuts and act as shock absorbers, want to align with a nice concave S-shaped curve to the back, just as they do during the yoga cobra pose that I now know so well. However, the bucket seat is no different from the bench seat, seat 34B in coach, or the couch in your living room in the way it bows the spine outward into a convex C-shape, which puts pressure on the weakest discs with their aging, cracked walls of collagen. For those with the wrong genes, the discs respond by bulging out like squeezed balloons, typically against the large nerves that branch off from our spinal cord and transmit signals from our arms and legs to the brain. Besides plucking these nerves in ways that make our brain’s pain receptors light up like a carnival game, the herniated discs also leak their acidic jelly on the nerve sheath, chemically burning it, potentially beyond repair.

Well, as my dad used to say, growing old ain’t for sissies. While sofas and airliners are unlikely to change much soon, the auto industry is at least giving some thought to the crumbling tower of bone in our backs. You’ve heard of the autonomous car? Meet the autonomous car seat.

Ray Scott, president of the seat division for Lear Corp., which last year made the seats for 17 million vehicles, acknowledges that car seats have got to evolve. “Car seats are designed for the first 15 minutes of ‘soak time’ in the dealership,” he told me, referring to the often much-too-brief period during which prospective buyers decide if their favored new car has comfy chairs. However, he says, “the occupants are not being supported over the long run.” And what’s worse, the buyer often doesn’t even know it, having adopted a seating position that seems perfectly comfortable but is actually doing long-term damage.

What happens? Scott and his team, many of whom, coincidentally, have back issues, hired a consultant, Detroit-area chiropractor and disc specialist Dr. Winsen Zouzal, and studied butts in seats to a fare-thee-well, using sophisticated pressure sensors to determine “hot spots” where the spine is misaligned and the backs of the thighs are squeezed. They learned that traditional upmarket adjustments such as power lumbar control are inadequate. These rectangular inflatable “footballs,” as Scott calls the pneumatic bags within the seat, often just create pressure points that make you uncomfortable without doing any actual good.

Lear is shopping around a concept that it calls the Intuitive Seat, a sort of living, breathing bucket that is always in motion. The seat can recognize your pressure points and adjusts itself according to your ideal position for spinal alignment, then keeps adjusting and massaging as you fatigue and shift around. Instead of footballs, the In­tui­tive Seat has what Scott and Zouzal describe as a pneumatic catcher’s mitt, or triangular bags that embrace your upper thorax below your shoulders and actually lift it slightly, engaging the core, opening up your airways, and taking pressure off the beleaguered discs below. It gives the driver the option of phasing in the new seat position over time so that you have a chance to get used to what may at first seem like an awkward, upright seat adjustment, and it has sport and comfort settings depending on your driving mood. Scott says a few automakers are interested.

In the meantime, one thing you can do now, according to Scott, is take that wallet out of your back pocket. Sitting on a wallet is terrible for the spine. Also, I suggest investing in a good memory-foam back ­pillow, which did for me what lumbar adjustment attempts to do: rotate the hips to recurve the spine inward, but in a more distributed way without pressure points.


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Our ancestors may have screwed up by coming down from the trees, but don’t blame them. They never imagined we’d try to keep our machines going past 40.