Automotive

It’s Time For Real Talk About Power Seat Controls


Illustration for article titled It's Time For Real Talk About Power Seat Controls

Graphic: Jason Torchinsky

I’ll admit, I hadn’t given power seat controls much thought since I used an old Oldsmobile seat controller to play Atari games years ago. See, most of my miserable old cars have manual levers and pawls and ratchety things to scrape the seats into different positions. But, of course, many, many modern cars provide electric motors to do the work for you, and there seems to be two main schools of thought when it comes to seat controls: on the seat, or on the door. Let’s decide which we think is better. Now.

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Power seats have been a staple on luxury cars especially since around the 1940s, at first just offering powered fore-aft movement. In 1955, Ford offered four-way power seat controls on the Thunderbird, and made damn sure everyone knew it in their brochures and advertising.


Illustration for article titled It's Time For Real Talk About Power Seat Controls

Screenshot: Ford

Ford’s seat controls consisted of a pair of two-way switches, one moving up and down for seat height, and one moving forward and back for seat fore/aft motion. The controls were mounted on the door panel.

As power seats became more common, seat controls moved to the lower side of the seat, which simplified wiring and required less physical wire, and proved to be a pretty convenient place to mount the controls.

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Illustration for article titled It's Time For Real Talk About Power Seat Controls

Screenshot: eBay

You’d drop your hand down by the side of the seat and feel around for the controls, which usually consisted of rocker switches and a little joystick. The controls weren’t labeled usually, as this was not a control panel you’d expect to actually see, but rather was one designed to be used by feel.

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These weren’t perfect, but worked pretty well for a long time. The next big innovation came, I believe, in the mid-to-late 1980s, and was pioneered by Mercedes-Benz.

They returned seat adjustment controls to the door, and did so in an innovative, highly visual way: by shaping and arranging the control buttons in the shape of the seat itself:


Illustration for article titled It's Time For Real Talk About Power Seat Controls

Screenshot: Mercedes-Benz

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Other carmakers, usually luxury ones like Cadillac and Lincoln, got into this visually exciting method, too.


Illustration for article titled It's Time For Real Talk About Power Seat Controls

Photo: GM Authority, Lincoln

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This was a really clever innovation, as it makes all of the many seat controls visually self-explanatory. You want the seat bottom to move forward, you push the little representation of the seat bottom forward. You want the backrest to recline more, you push that bit back. Easy!

Well, easy but very visual, which may not really be the best thing. If you want to adjust your seat a bit while you’re driving, do you want to take your eyes off the road and swivel your head to the door and look for the right part of the little “voodoo doll” seat to adjust?

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Maybe not. That’s when the seat-side camp countered with what seems to be the most common modern take on seat-side adjustment controls:


Illustration for article titled It's Time For Real Talk About Power Seat Controls

Photo: Jason Torchinsky

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You can find this approach on many, many cars. It’s taking the representational model from the very visual, door-mounted approach, but adapting it for touch-only use. You drop your hand and feel the horizontal one, which you can tell represents the seat bottom — you can move that forward, back or up and down. Feel behind it for the seat back control, and tilt that at will.

The round forward-back control there is likely the lumbar support; this control shows up in many different locations on cars, likely because automakers realize there’s no way they could possibly do any better than the old squeeze-bulb/blood pressure thingie-type lumbar controls as seen on cars like the Merkur Scorpio:


Illustration for article titled It's Time For Real Talk About Power Seat Controls

Screenshot: Flickr

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So, all of this to get to my fundamental question: which do you prefer, door-mounted power seat controls, or seat-side mounted controls?

For me, I think I have to say seat-side, but with a huge debt of gratitude to the representative-button approach pioneered by door-side controls. The directly analogous buttons to seat parts is intuitive and brilliant, but I think operates better by touch.

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But, I know there are those who disagree, so now’s the time to make your case! Let’s discuss seat controls!

(thanks for the inspiration, Hans!)

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