Ventilated Car Seats Latest Answer to Energy Crisis

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The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory says car seats with air ventilation can help the cause of energy independence. The seats keep drivers and passengers cooler so there's less need for air conditioning, and thus, better fuel economy.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THING CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Government researchers say they have a new way to save about half a billion gallons of gas and diesel per year. And their plan involves, well, let's just say it involves your backside. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado says if automakers would just install ventilated seats in cars, drivers would stay cooler and they'd use less air conditioning. NPR's Jeff Brady reports from Denver.

JEFF BRADY, reporting: Air conditioners in cars account for just five percent of overall vehicle consumption. Still that adds up to about seven billion gallons of fuel a year. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Lab wondered if air conditioning use could be reduced if cars had something called ventilated seats. Fans are embedded in these seats. You can't hear them, but hold your hand above the surface and you can feel a cool breeze. Research engineer Jason Lustbader says they're quite comfortable.

JASON LUSTBADER (Research Engineer): Essentially you're moving air past the person, which removes sweat from your body, which cools you. So it uses your body's natural cooling mechanism to cool you further, and also prevents that hot sticky back feeling that we've all experienced in the summer.

BRADY: NREL scientists tested the theory in a one-room lab just outside Denver. A red dodge Neon sits in the middle. Its trunk and engine compartment removed. Above the windshield are some heavy-duty lamps.

Mr. LUSTBADER: So first I'm going to plug in the light array.

BRADY: That is a big electrical cord.

Mr. LUSTBADER: Yeah, it is pretty big. They draw a lot of power.

BRADY: They have to because the lights imitate the sun on a hot day. Lustbader fires up an air conditioner to combat the heat. Temperature probes in the car show it's cooling down, but there is no one inside to enjoy the cool air. During the experiment, senior engineer John Rugh says ADAM is in the car.

JOHN RUGH (Senior engineer): That stands for Advanced Automotive Mannequin.

BRADY: He's sitting in a wheelchair.

JOHN RUGH: Right. He is sitting in a wheelchair, and that's because he weighs 150 pounds.

BRADY: Adam is supposed to represent a typical person. He's covered with 120 gray metal plates. Each one has three or four temperature gauges in it. The metal has tiny holes.

Mr. RUGH: This porous material allows the sweat to kind of ooze out kind of like it would your skin on a hot day.

BRADY: ADAM also breathes. His humanlike functions are controlled by a computer model that mimics how real people react. ADAM doesn't complain when the car is hot inside, he just sweats more. And in these tests, he seemed more comfortable in a ventilated seat. And, Rue says, if he were a real person he likely would not have used the air conditioning as much. The lab also is working on ways to make AC more efficient when it is used.

Mr. RUGH: Ultimately the most efficient air conditioning system would be one that used energy that was free, that was being wasted.

BRADY: For instance, heat from exhaust pipes. Rue says NREL scientists are working on a way to convert heat into sound.

(Soundbite of high pitched sound)

Mr. RUGH: It's annoying isn't it?

BRADY: Annoying or not, Rugh believes that sound could be used to drive an air conditioner, and he says people wouldn't hear it inside the car. Rugh says this is a high-risk experiment, meaning there's a chance it might not work. But he says ventilated seats do work and can reduce fuel consumption. The benefits amount to only a few gallons a year per car, but with millions of cars on the road the savings would be substantial. Currently ventilated seats are available only on high-end cars, but a research manager for Toyota says he expects them to become more common in the future. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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