Baby, it’s cold outside! Pros and cons about heated seats for cars

Car seatsWhen cars were first invented, rides in them could be downright chilly, especially during winter months. After all, these early-model vehicles were open bodied, so wind could whip around drivers and passengers alike as rain, snow and/or sleet fell freely upon their heads. Glass windshields started to appear around 1907, breaking some of the wind, and motorists bundled up and put gas lamps in their cars to create some radiated heat. But, still! It was cold.

At the 13th National Automobile Show in New York, a mass production car debuted that was fully enclosed: the Hudson “Twenty,” which was produced in Detroit, starting on July 3, 1909. Because this car was a warmer ride, 4,000 vehicles sold that year – this in spite of the cost of nearly $1,000 (about $26,000 in today’s dollars; remember that car financing wasn’t typically available to buyers). In 1910, Hudson built nearly 6,500 of these cars to continue to meet demand and, by 1925, Hudson was the third largest US car manufacturer behind Ford and Chevrolet.

Although an enclosed car was warmer than an open-bodied one, traveling was still a cold proposition in the winter. Enterprising people tried to recycle exhaust fumes into their vehicles to benefit from small amounts of interior heat. This doesn’t sound like a particularly safe idea, though, and it couldn’t have smelled great, either. In 1929, a hot air heater was available in the Ford Model A. It took a while to fire up and it provided inconsistent engine-generated heat, but it had to be safer than inhaling exhaust fumes. In 1933, Ford installed the first in-dash heating unit: gas powered.

Meanwhile, General Motors created a heater that used redirected engine coolant, debuting the first modern heater core in 1930. Although improvements are continually being made in the auto world, including with heaters, this 1930 model is still the basis of what’s being used today.

Heated seats

Although car heaters made driving far more comfortable, a heated seat would provide targeted heat to one particular body part – and that was an appealing idea to many. It’s reported in many places online that General Motors (GM) tested car seat heaters in 1939 on select models, but no additional details or sources seem to be available. But, GM clearly was a pioneer in the heated seat effort, with Robert Ballard of GM credited with the first patent. He applied for his patent in 1951 and was issued #2,698,893 in 1955. See pictures and detailed text of his patent here.

In 1966, the Cadillac Deville came with the option of heated seats, along with two other luxury innovations: headrests and an AM/FM stereo radio. This option more closely resembled heating pads for the seats, rather than today’s more sophisticated options, but at least they were warm. Here’s a photo of the temperature controls.

Who gets credit for the first “real” heated seats? Saab, although the initial goal was to minimize backaches, which would lead to more pleasurable traveling – which would make for safer driving, according to Saab. The original press release reassured car owners that the heating system was not affected by dampness or water, causing Jalopnik to have this bit of fun: I like the “not affected by dampness” part in there, because that’s automaker code for “Go ahead and wet your pants! You won’t die! Enjoy!”

Let’s talk about safety

In a 2011 article in The Legal Examiner, it was stated that approximately 30% of cars on the road today come with heated seats. Edmunds.com states it in a different way: that nearly 300 models of cars come with seat warmers today.

There is no doubt that they provide comfort in the cold months. However, although manufacturers typically list that these heaters max out between 86 and 113 degrees Fahrenheit, temps can sometimes reach 150 degrees. Third degree burns can develop in about ten minutes when temperatures reach 120 degrees, and people with diabetes, neuropathy and/or other paralysis issues may not have the ability to sense danger in time to shut off the heater.

Toasted skin syndrome is an actual condition that, according to the Chicago Tribune in 2013 “results when the backs of your legs, thighs and buttocks become darkened and discolored after too much time snuggled into a heated seat. Yes, your Fanny Fryer accessory package literally could tan your hide.”

The article goes on to say that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Society of Automotive Engineers alike have formed “what can only be called crack teams to get to the bottom of it all and forge safety standards.”

It’s easy – all too easy – to joke about seat warmer challenges but results can be quite serious. The integrity of the burned skin, The Legal Examiner article states, could be compromised permanently – and this is not a theoretical issue, with numerous people already receiving significant burns from car seat heaters.

Heated seat repairs

If you decide that the benefit of more targeted heat is worth potential risks, and your heated seats aren’t functioning properly, then here is a checklist to guide you through troubleshooting, repairs and replacement.*

Question: who wants to tear apart their car seats to diagnose a heated seat problem?

Answer: nobody.

Fortunately, there are plenty of potential problems and fixes to try first, including:

  • Check for and fix blown fuses. Does that solve the problem?
  • Make sure that the plug connecting the seat to the wiring is free from corrosion or dirt. Using a voltmeter, make sure that at least 12 volts exist on each side of the switch.

Still having a problem? Pull out your car manual to see where the thermistor is located. Has it shifted? If so, then that shift probably burned out the heating wire. Burn spots in the car’s fabric indicate the likelihood of this issue. If that’s the case, you’ll need to replace or solder bad wire.

Let’s say that none of this helps. You then should use an ohmmeter to see which section of the heating element is causing a problem (knowing that the answer might be “all”). If you decide to replace the unit:

  • Detach any wires from the seat.
  • Remove the seat from the car.
  • Disassemble the seat, separating the back and base, and removing the cushion and leather from the base.
  • Replace all heated seats parts, including the heating element and the wiring.
  • Put the seat together again.
  • Reconnect the wiring.

What are your experiences with heated car seats? What questions do you have? Leave your comments below. 

 

*Always consult your owner’s manual first. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure warranties are not voided.

Comments

  1. My car only included a heated seat for the driver. Is it possible to add a heater and switch to the passenger side? What is the wattage or current draw of a seat heating coil?
    Dave

  2. C Keen of Waterford, MI says:

    I found the Advance Auto Parts page on heated car seats very informative and entertaining. As a retired skilled tradesman for the fallen flag Pontiac Motor Car Company as an experimental builder, I have always been reluctant to put 10 amps of electrical current into any cockpit accessory, especially when it is in such close proximity to a passenger that should expect total safety in it’s use. My wife’s Pontiac G8 has heated seats and though she loves them I only turn mine on for a few minutes and that’s enough for me. They should have a timer to shut them off in just a few minutes of operation. If the HVAC system can’t keep you warm after that, then it’s time to move closer to the equator.

  3. My 2012 Subaru Outback is my first car with “bun warmers”, even though I’ve been driving since the late 1960s. I love the seat warmers. I live in a cold climate area. But I even use the warmer in summer, as on long trips to visit relatives (13 hours, plus each way), it helps alleve any of my chronic lower back pain.

  4. Steve Punter says:

    I have been told that the element burning out on one seat would break the loop and effect both seats yet looking at other comments I am not convinced. I wouldn’t want to go to the cost of replacing elements as they have to fit new leather (440 pounds) before you look at labour if there is a simpler option they haven’t explored. Advice welcome.

  5. Do heated leather seats actually allow for break down of the firmness of the seat because of the way they are made? And does the heat break down the leather itself?

  6. Roger Ski Gapinski says:

    I have a 2007 Cadillac DTS which purchased in April 2015 with only 22,900 miles. The car is immaculate and still maintains the leather smell. Recently I noticed that the heated/cooled seats work intermittently. My wife really enjoys using them on the passenger seat. I rarely use mine except for really cold mornings. Even in Jacksonville, Florida it gets cold in the mornings during winter. Thanks goodness it doesn’t last long.
    I was wondering if the function of the heating/cooling seats is any way related to the temp inside and outside the car. This morning it was 50F and the driver seat heated great. This afternoon it was 80F and it seemed the seat did not heat at all.
    In addition, is the blower fan speed (outlet under the seats) supposed to be the same whether it is in heat or cool mode? Seems like the sound is different in each mode.
    Any help is greatly appreciated. Thanks so much!

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