The $6,000 Seat
A look at Bose’s new approach to improving driver comfort
By Paul Abelson
I was shocked when I heard the price. I usually avoid talking price in product reviews, but how can a national company enter the trucking industry by asking six to 10 times the going price? What could justify $6,000 (installed) for a truck seat?
During the early years of trucking, seats were bolted to truck floors. Just as with a car, as the vehicle rode over the terrain, so too did the seat. Some trucks had the seat mounted on elliptical steel leaf springs. At the low speeds early trucks traveled, that was adequate.
Motor vehicles evolved, and so did suspensions. Steel springs softened road shock. Occupants went along for the ride (pun intended).
It wasn’t until the third quarter of the last century that compressed air was used for cushioning. Air is compressible and pumpable. By containing air in a bag, you can reduce much of the shock and vibration. It’s like squeezing a balloon. It moderates what the driver feels.
Air suspensions don’t eliminate shock and vibration; they moderate it and make it tolerable. Air-suspended seats gained popularity when most trucks used steel springs and provided harsh rides. In the 1970s and 1980s, air suspension gained popularity, not just for driver comfort. Freight claims for hidden damage were greatly reduced too.
Air-suspended trucks rode better, but drivers wouldn’t give up their new seats. Some even added cab air suspension kits. At first, they were strictly an aftermarket item. Now, truck builders install them at the factories. Today, drivers ride on three levels of air cushioning: the truck’s primary suspension, the cab suspension and the air-ride seat.
Shake you up
Research into improving seat design involved suspension geometry and air systems. One manufacturer even went from air bags to containing air inside a steel cylinder. Drivers still feel bumps. Air cushions the impact, so much of the harshness is gone, but while the amount is reduced the shock and vibration is still there.
That’s where Bose enters the picture. We know Bose for cutting-edge sound systems, and sound is vibration and motion. They apply principles of sound control to seat motion. Audible frequencies are from the 20 cycles-per-second range (called Hertz or Hz) up to about 18,000 to 20,000 Hz. But road vibrations are from 2 Hz to 30 Hz. Research has shown that frequencies below 30 Hz are usually felt rather than heard.
Different parts of the body react to different vibrations. At certain frequencies eyeballs jiggle, affecting vision. At others, our 10-pound head (give or take a bit) strains our neck muscles as they work to keep it upright. These vibrations affect humans so much that in Europe, where more research has been done, hours of service are limited for workers exposed to whole body vibrations.
Instead of cushioning and absorbing road shock, Bose took an entirely newer approach. Its system counters the shock and vibration, electromechanically canceling it. Bose started research into the effects of vibration back in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until recently that computers became capable of handling the complex calculations to manage the Bose ride system.
Sensors detect unwanted motion thousands of times a second, often to within 1/100 of an inch. This data is analyzed, and signals are sent to a linear actuator that moves the seat up and down as needed to counteract forces on the driver.
It’s like a Bose QuietComfort noise-canceling headset on steroids. Instead of tiny vibrations created in the earphones, the ride system can handle a 350-pound driver, although beyond that weight performance starts to degrade. The net effect is a stable, comfortable ride without the body making continual physical adjustments. The seat runs on 3,500 watts of power, but by using regeneration it draws an average of only 50 watts, or about 4 amps.
That’s the theory, but justification for its price lies in performance, not theory. Jackie Wormley, of Hutchins, Texas, heard SiriusXM radio personality Kevin Rutherford describe the seat. She drives a 2001 Freightliner FLD 120 that she bought from her company.
“I had back pains,” she says. “I used to feel every bump in my back and neck. The truck still bounces down the road, but I don’t. It’s almost like floating, detached from the truck.”
Wormley saw the seat at GATS in 2010 and was one of the first to buy when it went on the market. “I was concerned about safety, losing the feel for the road. It actually improves safety. I regularly drive through Ohio over a bad patch of bumps. I used to get bounced all over the truck but this keeps me stable. I can control the truck. I can still feel ice on the road in bad weather. The seat has actually helped me avoid problems.”
Chip Fisher retired after 32 years of over-the-road trucking, most as the owner of Blue Chip Horse Transportation. The East Derry, N.H., resident now uses his Volvo VNL — converted to a motor home and workshop — in his second business modifying diesel engines. “The way it’s spec’d now with the long wheelbase, the front suspension is overloaded. I tried using big flotation tires at 75 psi. I haven’t been able to make the truck ride good, but now my fanny rides good,” Fisher said.
“I used to ride with one elbow on the windowsill. No more. The motion of the truck throws me around too much. But with both armrests down, I just ride in the seat. It makes a huge difference. My eyeballs aren’t jiggling, my intestines aren’t burning, and my knees and hips don’t get stiff. They’re moving with the truck, bending and flexing. The seat stays level, but it’s always moving relative to the truck.
“After a few days, I learned to relax. I don’t have to keep bracing myself. If anyone is considering one, locate a demonstrator first. Then give it a try. And if you ever have second thoughts about why you paid what you did, just turn it off. You’ll have it back on real soon.”
The original question was if the seat was worth its high price. Wormley answered immediately. “I would have paid $10,000 for it. I’ll be taking it to my next truck and probably the ones after that too.”