Car seats, like the vehicles themselves, are available in a variety of materials with a wide range of manual and electronic controls. My old 1977 Dodge Aspen, for instance, had a front row bench seat that moved as one, like a faux-brocade couch on rails. It had no ventilation, no heat, and definitely no massaging functions. Automobile seating has come a long way since then.
The first production car with optional heated seats was the 1966 Cadillac DeVille, and massaging seats came along decades later in 2000 Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac models. Bentley, however, has taken the spa-like cabin to the next level with its available “airline seat specification” setup; the British brand says its super-deluxe airline seat specification is a world first.
This $11,000 option in the extended wheelbase version (EWB) of the Bentayga includes not just heat, but cooling, massage, recline, and small trays that fold out like those on a commercial airline. This SUV’s seats even have sensors that predict that you’re about to start sweating even before you know it yourself and preemptively adjusts the temperature.
Here’s how they work.
First class seats
When travelers on an airplane upgrade to business or first class, they gain a significant amount of legroom and space around their seat. Bentley chose to call this Bentayga EWB setup “airline seat specification” to drive home the message that this is a roomy, first-class experience. As soon as you sit down, the sheer number of positioning options is dizzying: The rear seats can be adjusted 22 ways, not including the rear footrest behind the front passenger seat.
Steve James, the head of interior design for Bentley, has been developing seating for the luxury brand since 2006. His first task when he joined Bentley was to come up with the initial concept for the seats in Bentley’s then-new flagship model, the Mulsanne. While the uber-luxurious Mulsanne model included heated, cooled, and massaging seats, the Bentayga EWB says “hold my Dom Perignon” and ratchets it up even more to prevent fatigue, not just treat it.
“High-end cars focus quite a lot on fatigue recovery; if you’re getting tired in the car, the massage function is designed to help after the fact,” James says. “But we thought the real luxury experience is to do something to stop the fatigue in the first place. We saw an opportunity with the Bentayga EWB because we have more room to work with.”
Science, research, and “perfect posture”
James explains that Bentley focused on two key metrics during the development of the first-class seats: posture and thermal response. Bentley collaborated with an American chiropractor and Comfort Motion Global (CMG), a company that partners with research universities to test its proprietary technologies. Through its research, it discovered that making small adjustments in the leg and back angles of a vehicle seat–as little as one to two degrees–results in a positive increase of blood flow, increasing alertness and reducing fatigue.
Bentley’s seats are fitted with 12 electric motors and three pneumatic valve engine control units. Unique algorithms developed in conjunction with CMG apply 177 individual pressure changes, shifting stress points from one area to another to stop the onset of fatigue. And the leg rest feature in the Bentayga is situated at a particular angle to create what James calls “perfect posture” that bends the legs slightly for maximum comfort and blood flow.
“As you may have experienced if you’re in a plane or sitting statically for a long period of time, fatigue sets in,” James says. “The postural system is a system of pneumatic bladders inside the seat and they make small micro-adjustments that fine-tune the angles of your pelvis, your thighs, they are helping motion constantly happen. Small motions that give the customer the option to regulate them. They really make a difference.”
Another important element of Bentley’s high-end seats is what it calls “thermal comfort.” (There is a default calibration, but it can be adjusted depending on the average temperature preference of the passenger.)
Bentley embedded two sensors in the seats, each constantly measuring humidity and temperature levels of the bottoms and backs of the seats. With that data, the car can automatically activate its seat climate system for heating or ventilation to maintain the passenger’s individual comfort level. James says that the system detects temperature variations of 0.1 degrees and registers upward and downward trends and the human brain doesn’t notice before the delta is 0.5. So the seats’ constant monitoring heads off perspiration before it even happens.
While the concept started to take shape in 2015, the brand didn’t create a working prototype until 2019 after years of data collection and validation. The team had to do quite a bit of calibration on the thermal comfort side, as different passengers feel comfort at vastly different temperatures depending on a number of factors. And as it turned out, one of the engineers became a real-time case study; he became ill during the development and started feeling hot and sweaty. As designed, the system measured that and calculated the delta in his calibration preferences.
“The real clever bit of the system is it can sense even to one-tenth of a degree Celsius at all times,” James says. “It can measure how you’re feeling and how your temperature is trending. So if you start feeling a little bit warm or perspire a bit–we can actually see it before you feel it.”
In a mainstream car with heated seats, you might find that activating them to full power feels wonderful in cold temperatures until you start overheating. At that point, the seats hold residual warmth that feels uncomfortable until it cools off. Bentley’s seats are designed for an ideal balance of hot and cool so that you feel consistently content.