Research to Impact: Safer Car Seat Covers

Professor Rajiv Padhye and his research team developed a new manufacturing method for removable car seat covers that ensures deployment of side airbags, reducing risk of fatality or injury following side-impact collisions.

Padhye is Director of RMIT’s Centre for Materials Innovation and Future Fashion (CMIFF). Drawing on previous experience working in the textile industry, his research in textile manufacture includes high performance fabrics, colouration and finishing of textiles, and fabric processing.

Padhye was approached by Ray Pawsey, Managing Director of the car seat cover manufacturer Who-Rae, to help solve a problem with the design of removable car seat covers. Pawsey was concerned that removable car seat covers did not always rupture to enable the release of side airbags, posing a safety threat to drivers and passengers.

Professor Rajiv Padhye Professor Rajiv Padhye, Centre for Materials Innovation and Future Fashion

Padhye, together with colleagues Dr Arun Vijayan and Dr Amit Jadhav, undertook laboratory research to test the reliability of conventional removable seat covers, discovering that as many as 40% of the removable seat covers tested impeded side airbag release. With this evidence, Pawsey alerted the industry and regulators to this significant safety issue. This prompted Kmart to recall over 20,000 removable seat covers that had been labelled as “airbag compatible”.

The challenge for Padhye’s team was then to identify a method of manufacture that would ensure removable seat covers ruptured when side air bags were activated. They needed to find a way of weakening the area of the seat cover adjacent to the side air bags, while ensuring the product remained resilient to everyday wear and tear.

Vijayan came up with a solution after researching the use of laser cutting in the automotive industry. Laser pulses could be used to weaken the fabric in precise areas to form a line of breakage, much like a microscopic needle piercing a line through fabric. With this refined technique, the team was able to create a weakened zone on the fabric with a bursting strength calibrated to ensure deployment of the side airbag following collision.

Padhye’s collaboration with Who-Rae has brought to market removable car seat covers that provide a greater assurance of safety in the event of a collision. Following early market success in the United States, Who-Rae was acquired by the California-based company Kraco, further broadening the market reach of the product. The product is now sold in the United States, Canada and Australia. In the United States, the new generation car seat covers have captured 30% of all car seat cover sales.

The societal impact of Padhye’s research is even more significant. Side-impact collisions are among the most injurious to car passengers, and combination side airbags have been found to reduce death and injury from side-impact collisions by 60%. Padhye’s research collaboration has produced a removeable car seat cover that is wholly reliable in ensuring side airbag deployment. The replacement of conventional car seat covers with the new generation car seat cover is reducing fatalities and injury that would otherwise result from a failure of side airbags to deploy. Australia needs to introduce new regulatory standards that would further support the uptake of this technology.

car seats with removable air bags

Padhye continues to develop textile innovations that provide greater performance, comfort and safety for consumers. In 2018 he received the Australia New Zealand Sports Technology award for design of a new fabric that can provide cyclists greater protection against skin abrasions.

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