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Wearable AC tech for car upholstery?

A new ‘smart fabric’ billed as providing a form of climate-control air-conditioning for the wearer looks to have potential for use in car seat upholstery.

Smart fabric

Scientists at the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland claim to have developed a new high-volume production method for hot embossing microscopic channel structures onto large areas of plastic film at a low cost for use in a range of applications such as clothes and, potentially, motor vehicle seat upholstery and other cabin trim.

One of the research centre’s goals is to engineer a fabric that can have its temperature adjusted by pumping cold or hot liquid through the micro-channels. 

Individual users wearing a garment with the technology would make these changes via a mobile phone app, but as a seat fabric it could potentially be incorporated into the car’s on-board electronics. 

The tiny microfluidic channels can be embedded into hard or soft plastics, depending on the purpose, which indicates that it could also be used in other areas of trim in the vehicle’s cabin, all with the aim of improving occupant comfort and reducing load on the HVAC unit.

Temperature-sensitive textiles are not new, but the various forms currently available are expensive and only a highly niche market. 

Phase-change materials, for example, are used in clothing like mountain climbing jackets and beanies which have microcapsules filled with a liquid like paraffin that changes its character according to the wearer’s body temperature. 

As you get hot, the capsules become more liquid (allowing the heat to escape), while when the body gets cold the capsules solidify, keeping body heat in.

While heated seats were once restricted to high-spec models, they are becoming increasingly standard – and virtually essential in electric cars – as manufacturers appreciate the benefits. Not only do they raise the body temperature more quickly, improving occupant comfort, the energy savings can bring incremental improvements to fuel consumption and reduce the energy draw on the vehicle’s battery, which is particularly relevant for EVs.

Car manufacturers such as BMW have toyed with the concept of smart, touch-sensitive fabrics, though more as a means to control a range of functions – such as HVAC settings or stereo volume – that would be otherwise controlled using regular switchgear.