A recent patent filing suggests Tesla has come up with a new way to manufacture car seats
Describing anything wearable or resembling upholstery as “skin” is usually pretty creepy. Tesla’s patent application for “Skin-Foam” seats is anything but. In fact, Skin-Foam is a compelling method for assembling car seats, in which the upholstery—the part you contact when seated, typically made of cloth or leather—is fused directly to the foam cushioning that supports your weight.
In most cars, seats are made up of several layers of components: There is the structural frame (usually metal and plastic), the foam cushioning, and then the upholstery that covers it all. Tesla’s patent for “Skin-Foam Architecture for Seating” wants to simplify those last two pieces by literally molding them together. As in, during the manufacturing process, a “skin” of an upholstery material is molded to the foam cushioning, creating a single piece. The company’s patent illustration (a section drawing) is shown below:
As you could imagine, this would greatly simplify the production process for a seat, given how covers would no longer need to be sewn together and fitted over the cushioning. It might also make for a cool-looking seat; as Tesla points out in the patent, the seams on today’s seats “may be unsightly.” Visuals aside, the idea of a seat with fewer components and layers is appealing, even if it’s not as exciting as one of Tesla’s big software updates or zany new self-driving features. Weight savings are critical to improving electric vehicles’ efficiency and driving range, and rethinking larger components such as seats is an intelligent way to find more weight to save.
It is worth noting that the idea of a skin-foam seat isn’t entirely new; Tesla admits as much in its patent filing, saying “skin-foam seats are typically used in non-premium seating, such as construction vehicle seats, or small seats (for example, bicycle seats),” before adding, “but these do not provide significant comfort.” Tesla hopes its contribution to the skin-foam game will lead to “plush-feeling vehicle seating.”
So, how does it work? Starting with a tool (a mold), Tesla envisions pressing the skin (outer seating layer) into the tool first, followed by a mesh support backing, and finally the cushioning. Alternatively, the automaker thinks it can spray the final skin layer onto the seat; either way, the idea is the same. Tesla is simply covering its future bases here, and it also notes that a conductive mesh layer can be embedded in the seat to serve as an occupant sensor or heating functionality.
As for adding plushness, Tesla describes a “comfort pad” that would be molded into the seat between the supportive mesh and the skin. Another seat-related patent filed by Tesla offers more clues as to what the automaker is getting at here. That patent, for “A Load-Bearing Fabric Architecture,” describes a structural mesh-type material (pictured above) that could be used to support a seated human. Essentially, Tesla is describing the sort of supportive mesh you’d find on, say, a higher-end office chair. Combined with the spray-on skin-foam idea, theoretically, Tesla could make thin, lightweight, and simple-to-manufacture single-piece seat cushions and seatbacks consisting of a structural mesh layered with a cushion pad and finally wrapped in a molded-on skin. And just like that, you have a new-to-the-car-world seat. Say goodbye to your cloth or leather seats while you can.