Mike Kolich and a team of 50 engineers at Ford are obsessed with one thing and one thing only: the comfort of your seat.
Known at Ford as "Dr. Derriere," Kolich runs the Global Seating and Comfort team, which spent three years designing the new seats for the 2020 Explorer.
Code-named the "Revolution Seat," the new design is thinner than previous Explorer seats. It uses a lot less padding in the shoulder area and has less bulk in the back, creating more leg room for the second row.
"It's just a more open seat for a bigger frame," said Charlie Watson, the marketing manager at the Beechmont Ford dealership in Cincinnati, Ohio. "So, before, if you were built like a jockey you were going to be comfortable, but if you were anything bigger than that, you weren't."
The engineers also changed how to control temperature with the new seat, focusing on pulling warm air away from the passengers instead of blasting them with cold air.
"The air pulling past your body has a cooling sensation," Kolich said. "It's a pull of air instead of a push of air."
Ford is not alone in investing in seat improvements. The last five years have seen advancements in seat quality and comfort across the industry, said Brent Gruber, senior director for global automotive at JD Power.
"In the seating world we've talked about a trickle-down of features where things like heated or cooled seats were reserved for premium, higher-end luxury vehicles in years past, now you see it on mass-market vehicles," Gruber said, adding that Volvo is one company that excels in delivering seat comfort.
Seat design has historically been a long, arduous ordeal. That was due, in part, to the primitive process used for figuring out what worked.
"What seat development and seat comfort development used to be was a very iterative and very subjective process," Kolich said.
It used to be left mostly to trial and error. Engineers would design a seat and have drivers — sometimes potential customers, sometimes colleagues — test new seat designs by riding around in them. The passengers would then come back and make suggestions, and the engineers would adjust.
That process, however, was time-consuming, expensive and didn't give the engineers enough data. In a 2008 article for the journal Ergonomics, Kolich wrote that new seat configurations could be tested 16 times over two days, at the most.
That was really cumbersome considering some seats could have 100 different configurations to test.
"The purported strength of this process lies in the A to B comparison of seats," Kolich wrote, like an optometrist asking you which one lets you see the letters more clearly. That long testing process meant keeping a control group of test passengers was difficult, introducing subjective randomness among different passengers.
And that was with prototypes that sometimes used skived foam to roughly simulate the mechanical pieces inside a seat, introducing more potential for error. The new technology Ford is using cuts out some of that human testing and, in theory, much of the subjective error by measuring the smallest variations in seats to figure out what is working.
"We have in our lab an elaborate set of different tools and techniques that poke and prod and scan seats that we turn into engineering measures and measurables," Kolich said. "It's kind of a physics-based approach now."
For Kolich, automobile seats are a passion that has lasted for decades. He wrote a thesis on seat comfort for his doctorate in engineering. In the early days of his career, Kolich spent a lot of time focusing on finding ways to limit lower back pain for customers.
"When I was first starting, if someone was talking about seat comfort they would be talking about lumbar support. It was almost like a buzzword type of thing," Kolich said.
Car seating has changed a lot since then. As automakers and seat manufacturers have added more adjustment options, massage components and climate control functions, the engineers have tried to make sure customers know what a Ford feels like from one car to the next.
"If you get them back in and get them to interact with the vehicle and actually sit in the new style of seat, it's cool to see because it's a huge improvement for different body types," Watson said.
Correction: This article was updated to correct the spelling of the Beechmont Ford dealership in Cincinnati, Ohio.