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1. WO2020108860 - VEHICLE SYSTEM

Note: Text based on automatic Optical Character Recognition processes. Please use the PDF version for legal matters

[ EN ]

VEHICLE SYSTEM

TECHNICAL FIELD

The present disclosure relates to vehicle air flow systems. Aspects of the invention relate to a vehicle system comprising a vehicle cabin and an air flow system, to a control system, to a vehicle, to a method and to computer software and to a computer readable medium.

BACKGROUND

Conventional air conditioning systems dispense thermally conditioned air across the cabin space, thermally conditioning large areas of the vehicle. The thermally conditioned air is often used to achieve a particular target temperature within the cabin space. The target temperature is typically higher or lower than the temperature of the environment exterior to the vehicle cabin space.

Thermal transfer, also known as heat transfer, occurs between the cabin space and the exterior environment when the cabin space and exterior environment have different temperatures. Where thermal transfer is high, air conditioning systems consume large quantities of energy to achieve the target temperature within the cabin. This is a particular problem in battery electric vehicles (BEV), because consuming large quantities of energy significantly impacts the distance that a BEV can travel on a single charge.

It is an aim of the present invention to address the disadvantages associated with the prior art.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

Aspects and embodiments of the invention provide a vehicle system provided with a vehicle cabin, an air flow system and a seat, a control system for an air flow system, a vehicle comprising the vehicle system and/or the control system, a method, computer software and a computer readable medium as claimed in the appended claims.

According to an aspect of the invention, there is provided a vehicle system for use in a vehicle, the vehicle system including a vehicle cabin defined, at least in part, by an upper cabin surface and a lower cabin surface, the vehicle system comprising an air flow system and at least one seat that defines a seating area for a user; the air flow system comprising; at least one air vent disposed in at least one of the upper cabin surface and the lower cabin surface; and an airflow apparatus configured to direct an airflow through the at least one air vent, and wherein the at least one air vent is configured to direct the airflow around a periphery within which the seating area is defined so as to generate a thermal curtain at least partly around the seating area.

In an example, the vents may be bi-directional, acting as either an inlet to or outlet from the cabin.

The vehicle system may be used in manual, semi-autonomous, or autonomous vehicles, and is particularly suited to road vehicles.

In the invention, the environment within the interior of the cabin within the region of a user can be maintained at comfortable conditions efficiently, without the need to heat or cool the whole volume of the vehicle cabin, by generating a thermal curtain around the periphery of the seating area. The thermal curtain may substantially inhibit heat transfer by convection between regions of the cabin that are inboard and outboard of the thermal curtain. For example, the thermal curtain may provide a substantially laminar air flow between seating areas. The laminar air flow may resist convection across it. In this manner, the cabin air inboard of the thermal curtain, for example in a first seating area, may be essentially isolated from the cabin air outboard of the thermal curtain. The air flow system improves energy consumption because the air flow system does not have to expend excess amounts of energy to continually thermally condition the whole cabin, and only those areas where passengers are actually seated may be heated or cooled.

Other spaces of the vehicle cabin which are not occupied, such as luggage storage regions, need not be heated or cooled to the desired temperature and the occupied seating area is thermally protected, to some extent, from convention to/from these regions by the thermal curtain generated around the periphery of the seating area.

The vehicle system may comprise a control system, comprising one or more controllers configured to control the air flow through the at least one air vent. The controller may, but need not, be supplied together with the system for installation within a vehicle.

The vehicle system may in some embodiments comprise at least one air vent configured to direct the airflow downwards around the periphery, or alternatively the airflow may be directed upwards around the periphery.

The vehicle system may comprise an array of individual air vents configured to direct an airflow around the periphery. The array of individual air vents may be disposed in the upper and/or the lower cabin surface.

As an alternative to providing an array of air flow vents, the vehicle system may comprise an elongate air flow vent shaped so as to direct an airflow around the periphery. For example, the elongate airflow may be configured in the exact shape, with curved portions where necessary, to direct the airflow around the periphery of the seating area. The elongate air flow vent may be disposed in the upper and/or the lower cabin surface.

The vehicle system may comprise a first airflow apparatus configured to direct a first airflow through at least one first air vent provided in one of the upper cabin surface or the lower cabin surface. The vehicle system may comprise a second air flow apparatus configured to direct a second airflow through at least one second air vent provided in the other of the upper cabin surface or the lower cabin surface. The first and second air vents may be configured to direct airflows towards one another. In embodiments, the airflows may be opposed.

The first airflow apparatus may be configured to direct an air flow at a lower temperature than an air flow directed by the second air flow apparatus. Such a configuration has the advantage that the effect of natural convention, which causes warmer air lower in the vehicle to rise, is compensated or‘replenished’ by the airflow directed from the second air flow apparatus.

Alternatively, the first airflow apparatus may be configured to direct an airflow at a greater temperature than an airflow directed by the second airflow apparatus.

It is particularly advantageous to direct an airflow at a higher temperature from at least one lower air vent provided in the lower cabin surface, and to direct airflow at a lower temperature from at least one upper air vent. The hotter airflow through the lower air vent tends to replenish the effects of natural convention which causes hot air at the lower surface to rise in the vehicle cabin towards the upper surface.

The vehicle system may comprise a first airflow apparatus configured to direct a first airflow to at least one upper air vent in the upper cabin surface. The vehicle system may comprise a second air flow apparatus configured to provide suction that draws the first airflow into at least one lower air vent in the lower cabin surface, so that the thermal curtain is generated around the periphery.

The vehicle system may comprise a first airflow apparatus configured to direct a first airflow to at least one lower air vent in the lower cabin surface. The vehicle system may comprise a second air flow apparatus configured to provide suction that draws the first airflow into at least one upper air vent in the upper cabin surface, so that the thermal curtain is generated around the periphery.

The first and/or second air flow apparatus may switch operation from directing air through the vents to providing suction that draws air flow through the vents. The first and/or second air flow apparatus may switch operation from providing suction that draws air flow through the vents to directing air through the vents.

The at least one upper air vent and the at least one lower air vent may be in vertical alignment with one another.

Disposing air vents in an upper and/or lower surface of the cabin results in an improvement in the ability of the air flow system to provide a targeted air flow for creating a thermal curtain. The combined effect of air vents in the upper and/or lower cabin surface, and basing the control signal on occupation of seats, permits air flow to be focused towards a particular seating area within the vehicle cabin, resulting in improved efficiency and reducing losses. The variability in whether vents operate to provide suction or to direct air flow provides a highly customisable system that can adequately adapt to different operational conditions and to implement a thermal curtain swiftly and effectively.

In embodiments, the seat is moveable into a plurality of positions, the seat defining a seating area for the user in each of the plurality of positions. For example, the one or more controller(s), if provided, may be configured to receive a seat signal relating to at least one of (i) whether or not the seat is occupied, and the position of the seat from the plurality of positions. The one or more controllers, if provided, may be further configured to generate a control signal to control the airflow in response to the seat signal.

In this way, only those regions (volumes) of the vehicle cabin where a user is seated have a thermal curtain surrounding them to ensure that a conditioned environment of comfort is provided only in those regions of the cabin where it is needed. The thermal curtain prevents heat transfer by convection between different regions of the cabin (i.e. those regions where a passenger is seated and those regions which are vacant, or between two occupied regions being maintained at different temperatures).

The seat of the vehicle cabin may be moveable in a variety of different ways. For example, the seat may be moveable to each of the plurality of positions by at least one of: longitudinal movement along a longitudinal axis of the vehicle cabin, lateral movement along a transverse axis of the vehicle cabin, angular movement about one or more axes of the vehicle cabin (e.g. a vertical axis).

The combined effect of air vents in the upper and/or lower cabin surface, and basing the control signal for the airflow vents on occupation of seats, permits air flow to be focussed towards a particular region within the vehicle cabin, resulting in improved efficiency and reducing losses. The additional variability in whether vents operate to provide suction or to direct air flow provides a highly customisable system that can adequately adapt to different operational conditions and to implement a thermal curtain swiftly and effectively.

The one or more controllers are optionally configured to receive a temperature demand signal and to generate a control signal to control the airflow apparatus in response to the temperature demand signal. For example the one or more controllers may be

configured to: receive a temperature demand signal and a temperature signal; compare the temperature demand signal and the temperature signal; and generate a control signal to control the airflow apparatus based on the comparison between the temperature demand signal and the temperature signal.

According to an aspect of the invention there is provided a control system for controlling an air flow system of a vehicle, the vehicle having a vehicle cabin defined, at least in part, by an upper cabin surface and a lower cabin surface, the vehicle comprising: an air flow system and at least one seat that defines a seating area for a user, the air flow system comprising; at least one air vent disposed in at least one of the upper cabin surface and the lower cabin surface; and an airflow apparatus configured to direct an airflow through the at least one air vent, and wherein the at least one air vent is configured to direct the airflow around a periphery within which the seating area is defined so as to generate a thermal curtain at least partly around the seating area; the control system comprising one or more controllers, configured to: receive a seat signal relating to whether or not the vehicle seat is occupied; generate a control signal to control the airflow through the at least one air vent in dependence on the seat signal; and output the control signal so as to generate the thermal curtain at least partly around the seating area if the seat associated with the seating area is occupied.

The control system may comprise a user preference module to enable a user to input at least one user preference relating to a parameter of the vehicle cabin, the at least one parameter being, for example, a desired temperature within the periphery of the seating area within which a user is seated, a time for which an airflow is applied within the seating area in which a user is seated, and a speed of airflow applied within the seating area in which a user is seated.

Optionally, the one or more controllers collectively may comprise: at least one electronic processor having one or more electrical inputs for receiving the seat signal; and at least one electronic memory device operatively coupled to the at least one electronic processor and having instructions stored therein; wherein the at least one electronic processor is configured to access the at least one memory device and execute the instructions stored therein so as to generate the control signal.

According to an aspect of the invention, there is provided a vehicle comprising the vehicle system as described above or the control system as described above.

According to another aspect of the invention there is provided a method of controlling an air flow system for a vehicle having a vehicle cabin defined, at least in part, by an upper cabin surface and a lower cabin surface, the vehicle comprising: an air flow system and at least one seat that defines a seating area for a user, the air flow system comprising; at least one air vent disposed in at least one of the upper cabin surface and the lower cabin surface; and an airflow apparatus configured to direct an airflow through the at least one air vent, the method comprising directing the airflow around a periphery within which the seating area is defined so as to generate a thermal curtain at least partly around the seating area.

The method may comprise directing the airflow downwards around the periphery, or alternatively the airflow may be directed upwards around the periphery.

The method may comprising directing an airflow around the periphery using an array of individual air vents which may be disposed in the upper and/or the lower cabin surface.

As an alternative the method may comprise directing an airflow around the periphery using an elongate air flow vent shaped.

In embodiments, the method may comprise a first airflow being directed through at least one first air vent provided in one of the upper cabin surface or the lower cabin surface.

In addition, or alternatively, the method may comprise directing a second airflow through at least one second air vent provided in the other of the upper cabin surface or the lower cabin surface.

The method may comprise directing the first and second air vents towards one another such that, for example, the airflows are opposed.

The method may comprise directing an air flow by a first apparatus at a lower temperature than an air flow directed by a second air flow apparatus. Alternatively, the method may comprise directing an airflow by the first apparatus at a greater temperature than an airflow directed by the second airflow apparatus.

The method may comprise directing a first airflow to at least one upper air vent in the upper cabin surface. The method may comprise drawing the first airflow by suction into at least one lower air vent in the lower cabin surface, so that the thermal curtain is generated around the periphery.

The method may comprise directing a first airflow to at least one lower air vent in the lower cabin surface. The method may comprise draw the first airflow into at least one upper air vent in the upper cabin surface, so that the thermal curtain is generated around the periphery.

The method may comprise switching operation of the system from directing air through the vents to providing suction that draws air flow through the vents.

The at least one upper air vent and the at least one lower air vent may be in alignment with one another along an axis corresponding to respective airflows to or from the vents.

The method may comprise receiving a seat signal relating to at least one of (i) whether or not the seat is occupied, and the position of the seat from the plurality of positions and, for example, generating a control signal to control the airflow in response to the seat signal.

The method may comprise moving the seat into each of the plurality of positions by at least one of: longitudinal movement along a longitudinal axis of the vehicle cabin, lateral movement along a transverse axis of the vehicle cabin, angular movement about one or more axes of the vehicle cabin (e.g. a vertical axis).

The method may comprise receiving a temperature demand signal indicative of demanded temperature, for example as selected by a user of the vehicle via a user preference module. The method may further comprise receiving a temperature signal indicative of a temperature within a seating area of an occupied seat. The method may further comprise directing an airflow through the at least one upper air vent into the cabin if the temperature signal exceeds the temperature demand signal, and directing an airflow through the at least one lower air vent into the cabin if the temperature demand signal exceeds the temperature signal.

Such methods may also comprise directing an airflow out of the cabin through the at least one upper air vent if the temperature demand signal exceeds the temperature signal, and directing an airflow out of the cabin through the at least one lower air vent if the temperature signal exceeds the temperature demand signal.

In the method, the seat may be moveable into a plurality of positions, the method comprising receiving a seat signal relating to at least one of whether or not the seat is occupied, and position of the seat from the plurality of positions, and comprising generating a control signal to control the airflow in response to the seat signal.

The method may comprise directing a first airflow through at least one first air vent in one of the upper cabin surface and the lower cabin surface and directing a second airflow to at least one second air vent in the other of the upper cabin surface and the lower cabin surface, the first and second air vents being configured to direct opposed airflows towards one another to create the thermal curtain.

According to an aspect of the invention there is provided computer software which, when executed by one or more processors, causes performance of a method according to a preceding aspect of the invention.

According to an aspect of the invention there is provided a computer readable medium having instructions stored therein which, when executed by one or more processors, causes performance of a method according to a preceding aspect of the invention. Optionally, the computer readable medium comprises a non-transitory computer readable medium.

Any controller or controllers described herein may suitably comprise a control unit or computational device having one or more electronic processors. Thus the system may comprise a single control unit or electronic controller or alternatively different functions of the controller may be embodied in, or hosted in, different control units or controllers.

As used herein the term“controller” or“control unit” will be understood to include both a single control unit or controller and a plurality of control units or controllers collectively operating to provide any stated control functionality. To configure a controller, a suitable set of instructions may be provided which, when executed, cause said control unit or computational device to implement the control techniques specified herein. The set of instructions may suitably be embedded in said one or more electronic processors. Alternatively, the set of instructions may be provided as software saved on one or more memory associated with said controller to be executed on said computational device. A first controller may be implemented in software run on one or more processors. One or more other controllers may be implemented in software run on one or more processors, optionally the same one or more processors as the first controller. Other suitable arrangements may also be used.

Within the scope of this application it is expressly intended that the various aspects, embodiments, examples and alternatives set out in the preceding paragraphs, in the claims and/or in the following description and drawings, and in particular the individual features thereof, may be taken independently or in any combination. That is, all embodiments and/or features of any embodiment can be combined in any way and/or combination, unless such features are incompatible.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

One or more embodiments of the invention will now be described, by way of example only, with reference to the accompanying drawings, in which:

Figure 1 shows a side view of a vehicle in accordance with an embodiment of the invention;

Figure 2 shows a schematic diagram of a vehicle air flow system for controlling air flow within a vehicle cabin;

Figure 3 shows a schematic plan view of a vehicle cabin which may incorporate the air flow system of Figure 2;

Figure 4 shows a schematic side view of a vehicle cabin incorporating the air flow system of Figure 2;

Figure 5 shows a schematic side view of a vehicle cabin incorporating the air flow system of Figure 2, to show only certain air flow vents of the system delivering an airflow;

Figure 6 shows a schematic plan view of an alternative vehicle cabin to that shown in Figure 3 which may incorporate the air flow system of Figure 2; and

Figure 7 shows a method of operation of the air flow system of Figure 2.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION

In general terms, the present disclosure relates to a vehicle airflow system having one or more vents in each of the upper and lower surfaces of a vehicle cabin. As explained below, such a system finds particular application in an autonomous vehicle having seating that is more reconfigurable than for a conventional vehicle. However, such airflow systems offer benefits in any type of vehicle.

Figure 1 shows a side view of a vehicle 10. The vehicle 10 has a vehicle body 12 supported on a plurality of wheels 14. In use, rotation of the wheels 14 by a motive source such as an engine or a battery (not shown), or a combination of both, causes the vehicle 10 to move, mainly in the forward direction of travel, indicated in Figure 1 by the arrow T. Of course, it will be appreciated that the vehicle can also be caused to move in the opposite direction to the arrow T, when in a reverse gear.

References in the following description to left and right, front, rear, forward, or backward, are made with reference to the direction T. References to upper, lower, horizontal, and vertical are made relative to the conventional orientation of the vehicle, as shown in Figure 1 . A lower surface is closer to the ground than an upper surface when the vehicle is supported by the wheels 14. The ground may be used as a reference point as shown in Figure 1 .

The vehicle is provided with a vehicle air flow system (not shown in Figure 1 ) for controlling the air flow in the vehicle, as described below, and comprises the vehicle body 12 which encloses a vehicle cabin 16. The vehicle air flow system acts to condition the environment within the vehicle cabin 16, and to maintain regions of the cabin 16 at a comfortable temperature for users of the vehicle 10. Figure 2 shows an example air flow system 20 which may be implemented in the vehicle 10 in Figure 1 .

The air flow system 20, which selectively controls air flow within the vehicle cabin 16, comprises a sensing system 22, an air flow apparatus 28 and a control system comprising at least one a controller 24 and a user preference module 26. The controller 24 is a module within a body control module (BCM) and comprises a memory 25 and a processor 27. The user preference module 26 may also be a module of the BCM or may be a module of an infotainment system.

The air flow system 20 operates to provide thermal barriers, or curtains, around selected seats within the vehicle cabin 16, so as to provide regions of comfort when users of the vehicle 10 are accommodated within the vehicle seats. Improvements in efficiency are achieved by limiting thermal transfer between occupied and unoccupied volumes of the vehicle cabin 16, and specifically by forming a‘thermal curtain’ around the seating areas within the cabin 16 when a user is seated. A thermal curtain is air flow that provides a barrier to convection or conduction across the flow.

When adjacent to a surface, such as a side door or window of the vehicle 10, the thermal curtain may be generated to control a surface temperature of the side wall of the vehicle cabin 16 so that it is warm to the touch, despite cold temperatures outside, and so that heat transfer through the side wall is not detrimental to the interior conditions of the cabin 16. The thermal curtain may act to minimise a temperature difference between a surface of the side wall and the air in the exterior environment, again to minimise the effects of heat transfer on the interior of the vehicle cabin 16. Within the vehicle cabin 16, the thermal curtains act as a barrier to heat transfer by convection between different regions of the vehicle cabin 16, so that a temperature of comfort can be achieved within a seating region of the cabin 16, without the need to activate the airflow system in the entire cabin 16.

To implement these solutions, the sensing system 22 provides inputs to the controller 24 indicating at least an occupancy status of seats within the vehicle cabin 16. The occupancy statuses of the seats are provided by occupancy sensors 30 forming a part of the sensing system 22 which are associated with each of the seats. In practice, each seat is provided with its own occupancy sensor 30 so that a plurality of occupancy signals 32 are provided to the controller 24. It will be appreciated that a single occupancy sensor 30, which determines the occupancy of all of the seats, may also perform the same function. For example, an imaging system may enable the seat occupancy for all seats to be determined from a single image of the cabin 16.

The sensing system 22 also comprises optional position sensors 34 which form a part of the sensing system 22 and provide an input signal 36 to the controller 24 indicating a position of each seat within the vehicle cabin 16. The position of a seat is defined by its configuration, orientation/rotation, and/or location. The position sensors 34 therefore comprise configuration sensors 40 configured to monitor a configuration of the seats, orientation sensors 42 configured to monitor an orientation of the seats, and/or location sensors 44 configured to monitor a location of the seats. Other position-related parameters may also be measurable by further sensors (not shown) of the sensing system 22.

Orientation/rotation and location of a seat should be understood to have their conventional meanings. In manual vehicles, rotation of seats is highly limited, while the location of a seat is restricted to forward and backward movement along short rails. However, as will be described later, seating configurations in autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles may be highly variable where there is no need for a user to control the vehicle.

The term‘configuration’ in relation to a seat is intended to encompass at least one of: whether the seat is folded up; an angle at which a back of the seat is reclined; a height of the seat relative to a lower surface of the vehicle cabin; an angle of the headrest to the seat; a height of the headrest relative to the back of the seat; and, if included, an angle of a foot rest or an arm rest. Other measurable parameters that do not fall under rotation/orientation or location of the seat may also be considered to fall within the term configuration.

The controller 24, utilising the occupancy status at least, determines how the air flow apparatus 28 should operate to reduce thermal transfer in the vicinity of any users. The controller 24 may also use the received input from position sensors 34, and/or any other received input such as the input received from the user preference module 26. The user preference module 26 indicates any specific settings that the user wishes to implement in the control of the air flow system. For example, the user preference module may allow a user to input a preference relating to a desired temperature within the periphery of the seating area within which a user is seated, and/or a time for which an airflow is applied within the seating area in which a user is seated, and/or a speed of airflow applied within the seating area in which a user is seated. The controller 24 generates a control signal 46 for controlling the air flow apparatus 28 based on its received inputs. The controller 24 may be configured to generate the control signal 46 by accessing a database, look up table, or any other processes/algorithms deemed suitable.

The control signal 46 is output from the controller 24 and is received at the air flow apparatus 28. The air flow apparatus 28 operates according to the control signal 46 to implement the desired air flow within the vehicle cabin 14.

Although not depicted in Figure 2, the air flow apparatus 28 comprises a pump, a number of thermal sources, air ducts, and air vents. In use, the pump may draw air into the air flow apparatus 28. The number of thermal sources thermally condition the air drawn in by the pump. Each thermal source may include a heat exchanger, which may exchange heat with a vehicle battery, engine or coolant system. The air is pumped from the thermal source through air ducts in the vehicle to the air vents (not shown in Figures 1 and 2). The air vents are positioned at a surface of the cabin to allow air flow from the apparatus to the interior of the cabin. The air vents may be positioned in any surface of the vehicle cabin 16.

The air flow apparatus 28 is configured to form one or more thermal curtains within the vehicle cabin 16 using air vents positioned in various locations around the vehicle cabin 16, especially those provided in the roof and/or floor of the vehicle cabin 16. Air vents may be provided in the roof and/or floor of the vehicle cabin 16 and, in some examples, may be integrally formed within the roof and/or floor. Some of the air vents in the roof may be incorporated into the cant rail of the vehicle 10. Air having different temperatures may be directed through air vents in different surfaces, either using a single apparatus or more than one apparatus. In some examples, the temperature of the air flowing through vents in the upper and lower surfaces may be designed to oppose natural convection. In some examples, air vents in a surface may have corresponding opposed inlets in an opposite surface, so that air is drawn, actively or passively, from the vents to the inlets to enhance the formation of a thermal curtain.

By forming a thermal curtain within the vehicle cabin 16, a barrier to convection is provided within the interior volume of the cabin 16 so as to prevent heat transfer through convention between different thermal regions within the cabin 16. Careful selection of the position of the thermal curtains that are activated within the cabin 16 means that only certain volumes of the vehicle cabin 16 need to be conditioned with air flow, as determined by where users are actually seated. The efficiency with which the temperature of the cabin environment is controlled is therefore improved considerably compared to conventional arrangements.

The air flow apparatus 28, which may be part of, or in addition to, an air conditioning system configured to thermally condition the cabin space, also incorporates at least one mechanism for regulating and selectively controlling the flow of air through the vents. The flow of air through the air vents may be controllable by control of valves disposed at the vents, by control of valves positioned in the ducts, or by a combination of valves at the vents and within the ducts. For example, a valve may be provided at each vent to prevent or partially prevent air flow. The valve may be manually or automatically controllable. Valve systems (not shown in the accompanying figures) may also be incorporated to control air flow to subsets of air vents, so that air flow can be controlled for particular zones within the vehicle cabin 16.

To demonstrate the operation of the system of the invention, and how it may be used to generate selectively a thermal curtain or curtains within the vehicle cabin 16, an example vehicle cabin 16 including the air flow system is shown in Figures 3 to 5.

The cabin 16 comprises an enclosed interior volume of the vehicle 10 and is defined by the vehicle body. Taking T as a reference direction, the cabin 16 is surrounded and

defined by respective interior surfaces of front and rear walls 16a, 16b, left and right side walls 16c, 16d, a roof 16e (not identified in Figure 3), and a floor 16f of the vehicle body. As shown in Figure 3, the front and rear walls 16a, 16b are substantially perpendicular to direction T. The left and right side walls 16c, 16d are substantially parallel to direction T. The roof 16e extends between the upper edges of the walls, above the interior volume (when the vehicle is in the orientation of Figure 1 ) and defines an upper surface. The floor extends between the lower edges of the walls, below the interior volume (when the vehicle is in the orientation of Figure 1 ) and defines a lower surface.

Within the cabin 16, a dashboard 50 extends along and is positioned adjacent the front wall 16a. The dashboard 50 includes a steering wheel 52 for manual operation of the vehicle by user. The dashboard 50 may additionally, or instead of the steering wheel, include displays, user input systems, speakers, other output systems and/or air vents. As will be well understood, dashboards and the features incorporated into dashboards are well known to the skilled person, and so they will not be elaborated on further.

While the vehicle depicted in each of these figures is a manual or semi-autonomous vehicle and so requires a steering wheel 52 (or at least some form of user input to turn the vehicle), it will be appreciated that in fully autonomous vehicles a steering wheel may be omitted. In some autonomous vehicles, the dashboard 50 may also be omitted entirely.

Disposed within the interior of the cabin 16 are four seats 60, 62, 64, 66. Using direction T as a reference, the four seats are: a front right seat 60; a front left seat 66; a rear right seat 62; and a rear left seat 64. Although Figures 3 to 5 are only schematic diagrams, it can be seen that each seat comprises a seat portion, a back, and a headrest, as is conventional for vehicle seats. The seats are mounted within the cabin by a mounting (not shown) and the seats may also include a foot rest or one or more arm rests (also not shown).

Windows (not shown) are provided in the side walls alongside each seat. The front right window and rear right window are positioned in the right side wall adjacent the front right and rear right seats 60, 62 respectively. The front left window and the rear left window are positioned in the left side wall adjacent the front left and rear left seats 66, 64

respectively. The doors themselves may be transparent, translucent, or act as a daylight opening or region of low thermal insulation.

Although not shown in the figures, the side walls also incorporate vehicle doors. The side wall may include a pair of doors, a single door, and/or any other door system as appropriate. Each seat in the cabin is movable to a plurality of positions. The seats are considered movable by virtue of being able to have their configuration altered, as in conventional vehicles, but also may have their rotation/orientation and/or location altered. Moving a seat may be performed manually or automatically.

In the example shown in Figure 3, the front right seat 60, the driver’s seat, is occupied by a user 70. The front right seat 60 is rotated through 180 degrees so that the seated user faces in a direction away from the forward direction of travel T by rotating about the associated seat mounting. For example, the vehicle may be an autonomous vehicle in which the user 70 can face away from the forward direction of travel T when the vehicle is travelling under automatic control. A second user 72 is seated on the right rear seat 62, with a seating position that is directed away from the forward direction of travel by about 30 degrees, again by rotating the seat about the associated seat mounting, so that the user 72 faces out through the adjacent window. The remaining two seats, the front left seat 66 and the rear left seat 64, are facing forward and are unoccupied.

As the front right and rear right seats 60, 62 are occupied, the controller 24 of the air flow system 20 will consequently receive an input signal 32 from the occupancy sensors 30 to indicate that a user occupies these particular seats. The input signal 32 received from the occupancy sensors 30 indicates that the front right seat 60 and the rear right seat 62 are occupied.

Input signals 32 are received from the occupancy sensors 30 associated with the other seats to indicate that the other two seats (the front left seat 66 and the rear left seat 64) are not occupied.

Figure 4 illustrates the arrangement of air flow vents in the roof 16e (upper surface) of the vehicle cabin 16. The air flow vents are generally arranged so that a periphery around each seating area 77a, 77b, 77c, 77d is provided with a plurality of air flow vents in the roof 16e of the vehicle cabin 16, above the seats. There are four peripheries 76a, 76b, 76c, 76d identified in Figure 4, each consisting of a plurality of individual air vents 78 (two of which are numbered). For example, the periphery 76a defines a seating area 77a of the front right seat 60. For adjacent seats, some of the air flow vents 78 arranged around the periphery of one seat may also form a part of the plurality of air flow vents around the periphery of the adjacent seat. For example, the periphery 76a of the seating area 77a of the front right seat 60 shares a peripheral region with the periphery 76c of the seating area 77c of the front left seat 66.

For each seat, in addition to the air flow vents arranged around the periphery of the seating areas, four additional air flow vents 80 (identified for the front right seat 60 only) are provided within the peripheries to direct air either towards the passengers head or feet, depending on the seating position. Such air vents 80 within the peripheral air vents 78 may provide thermally conditioned air flow into the relevant seating area.

A corresponding plurality of air flow vents (not shown) may also be provided in the floor 16f of the cabin 16. These air flow vents may align with the air flow vents in the roof 16e of the vehicle cabin 16 or, alternatively, there may be a different number of air flow vents provided in the roof and the floor. For the purpose of the following explanation, it will be assumed that air flow vents are only provided in the roof 16e of the vehicle cabin 16.

The controller 24 generates and dispatches a control signal 46 to the air flow apparatus 28 in response to the input signal(s) 32 received from the occupancy sensor(s). The control signal 46 controls the air flow apparatus 28 to reduce thermal transfer in the region of the user by generating a thermal curtain around the seating area that the users 70, 72 are occupying.

For example, referring to the configuration shown in Figure 4, with a user 70 seated in the front right seat 60 and a user 72 seated in the rear right seat 62, the occupancy sensors 30 associated with those seats trigger a signal being sent to the controller 24 to indicate the occupancy. In contrast, no such signals are sent to the controller 24 from the occupancy sensors associated with the front left seat 66 and the rear left seat 64. The controller 24 generates a control signal, in response to the occupancy sensors, which activates the air flow vents 78 around the peripheries of the occupied seats, so

that a thermal curtain is generated around or surrounding the seating area associated with the occupied seats. In other words, the thermal curtain that is generated is directed around the periphery of the seating area. However, in contrast, the seats which are unoccupied do not have a thermal curtain generated around them. By generating a thermal curtain around the seating areas that are occupied, a barrier to convection is formed between the user and the other regions of the vehicle cabin 16 so that, even if other areas of the vehicle cabin 16 are too cold or too hot, the effect is not experienced by the seated passenger who instead enjoys the benefits of the thermally protected space.

In other examples it will be appreciated that a thermal curtain may be generated in different areas of the cabin if other criteria are fulfilled. For example, unlocking a door of the vehicle may cause a thermal curtain to be generated to form a barrier to convection through the door that is opened, even if a passenger is not seated in the adjacent seat. By generating a thermal curtain adjacent to an open door, the temperature within the vehicle cabin is more efficiently maintained as heat loss, for example, due to convection through the door is reduced.

The thermal curtain is formed by the air flow apparatus 28, and more particularly using thermally conditioned air directed to flow through air vents 78, 80 in the cabin 16 as described above.

This process of activating the air flow system 20 so as to generate the thermal curtains is depicted in Figure 5, which depicts the thermal source 90, ducts 92, and air vents 78,

80 of the air flow apparatus 28. The thermal curtains are depicted by reference numbers

81 and 83.

Air is received at the thermal source 90 via an air intake. The thermal source 90 thermally conditions the air and the air is communicated to the ducts 92. In Figure 5, the ducts 92 are depicted as being disposed along surfaces of the front wall 16a and roof 16e, although it will be appreciated that the ducts 92 may be arranged to take any route to connect the thermal source 90 and vents 78, 80. For example, pillars in each of the front, rear, or side walls may be used to route air ducts. In Figure 5 the vents are shown along the cant rail of the vehicle cabin 16, but a multiple of further vents may equally be

provided at various locations around the roof 16e of the cabin (e.g. as shown at 80 in Figure 4).

According to the control signal 46, which as discussed above has been generated based on an indication that the front right seat 60 is occupied by the user and the rear right seat 62 is occupied by another user, air vents 78 corresponding to the front right seat 60 and the rear right seat 62 are operated to generate a thermal curtain around the peripheries of the seating areas occupied by these seats.

The air vents 78 may be configured to direct air flow through any surface in the vehicle cabin 16 around the periphery of the seating area of the occupied seats, and need not be provided solely in the upper surface 16e. For example, air vents 78 may also be provided, in addition or as an alternative, in lower surfaces of the cabin. Air vents 78 provided in the lower surface are configured to direct air upwards, while air vents provided in the upper surface are configured to direct air downwards. Where air vents are positioned in both the upper and lower surfaces of the vehicle cabin 16, air flow may be duplicated through the sets of vents, or may be varied according to the mode of operation. The provision of vents in both upper and lower surfaces enhances the formation of a thermal curtain, particularly in examples where the vents in the upper and lower surfaces are vertically aligned.

Air flowing through vents 78 in the upper and lower surfaces may be at different temperatures. For example, air flow through the vents in the upper surface may be at a lower temperature than air flow through the vents in the lower surface of the cabin 16. In this way, hot air in the lower region of the cabin 16, which tends to rise, is replenished by the higher temperature air that is provided through the vents in the lower surface. In some examples, a first air flow apparatus is provided to provide air flow through the vents in the upper surface of the cabin 16, and a second air flow apparatus is provided to provide air flow through the vents in the lower surface. The first and second air flow apparatuses may provide air flow at different temperatures.

In some examples, where air vents 78 are provided in the one of the upper or lower surface of the cabin, air inlets may be provided in the other surface. In these examples, the inlets passively or actively draw air through the cabin 16 from the vents, leading to an increased air flow through the cabin 16.

In some examples, air vents may also be operable as air inlets that passively or actively receive air flow from the cabin 16, depending on the control signal 46 received from the controller 24.

Figure 6 illustrates an alternative vehicle cabin 16 to illustrate how other features of the seats may be varied depending on the application or operating mode. The vehicle cabin may be a vehicle cabin 16 for an autonomous vehicle, for example a self-driving car. The vehicle is therefore capable of operation with little or no user input. Autonomy is achieved by sensing the surrounding environment and using a control system to interpret the sensed environment in order to navigate through it as a manually operated vehicle would. The independence of autonomous vehicles from user input during the entirety or the majority of a journey removes limitations on how the vehicle is configured, and so new exterior and interior vehicle design is possible. As a result, a driver is no longer a requirement, and so the seating arrangement within the autonomous vehicle cabin 16 may be highly variable.

Each seat 160, 162, 164, 166 in the cabin is movable to a plurality of positions. The seats are considered movable by virtue of being able to have their configuration altered, as in conventional vehicles, but also may have their rotation/orientation and/or location altered. Moving a seat may be performed manually or automatically.

In the arrangement in Figure 6, the front left 166, rear left 164 and rear right 162 seats are facing in a conventional seating direction, facing the forward direction of travel T. A seat is‘facing’ a direction of travel if an occupant seated in that seat would be facing the direction of travel. This conventional seating direction may be considered to be the ‘default’ direction of the seats. In this embodiment the front left seat 166 has been moved forwards and sideways, and the rear left seat 164 has been move rearwards, away from their default positions (indicated by dashed lines). The rear right seat 162 has been moved from its default position and is now located further towards the side wall 16c than its default position. The front right seat 160 is rotated approximately 180 degrees from its default direction to face in the opposite direction to the forward direction T.

Signals indicative of the position, orientation and location of the seats are provided to the controller 24, using relevant sensors associated with each of the seats. In examples where seats are also capable of relocation in the cabin 16, the position sensors comprise location sensors, and the controller is configured to control the air flow system based on the location of each occupied seat within the cabin 16. For example, the controller 24 may assign a group of vents to be operated to provide air flow to a relocated occupied seat, where air flow through those vents would provide air flow only to the seat and within a predetermined distance or area around the seat.

The controller 24 may generate a control signal 46 for the air flow vents 78, 80 in response to the sensor signals, so as to generate a thermal curtain around the periphery of the seating area, not only of the occupied seat(s) but also in dependence on the exact position of the occupied seat (i.e. location, configuration or orientation). For example, if a seat is moved relatively far forward in the vehicle, air vents that are further forward in the vehicle 10 may be activated to generate a thermal curtain in a more appropriate, adjusted position than if the seat remains in the default position.

The periphery 76 of a given seating area is defined relative to the given seat associated with that seating area. Therefore, in a situation wherein a seat is moved forward or sideways for example, the defined periphery 76 of that given seat is also moved accordingly such that the airflow is directed in accordance with the current position of a seat and is not limited to being directed to the default position of the seat.

In another example, as an alternative to using individual location, orientation and/or configuration sensors associated with the seat, the position sensors 34 may comprise at least one camera that obtains image frames relating to one or more seats in the cabin 16. The controller 24 analyses the image frames, for example to update a three-dimensional model of the vehicle interior, to determine the position of the occupied seat within the reference system formed by the vehicle cabin 16 and/or to determine which seats are occupied.

The air flow system may also be operated to form thermal curtains over regions of the side walls that are alongside a seated user by activating appropriate vents against the side wall and adjacent to an occupied seat.

Figure 7 illustrates a method of operation of the air flow system. With reference to the seating arrangement of Figures 3 to 5, the method comprises receiving (step 100), at the controller 24, a seat signal indicating that a seat within the vehicle cabin 16 is occupied. The controller 24 generates (at step 102) a control signal to communicate to the air flow apparatus. The air flow apparatus is subsequently controlled (at step 104) according to the control signal to generate a thermal curtain by activating only those air flow vents which are required to generate a thermal curtain around the periphery or peripheries of a seating area defined by an occupied seat or seats.

In some examples, the vehicle is a semi-autonomous vehicle. In other examples, the vehicle is a manual vehicle. The invention is applicable to a vehicle driven by any source of motive power, including battery drive vehicles and engine driven vehicles, as well as hybrid vehicles.

It will be appreciated that various changes and modifications can be made to the present invention without departing from the scope of the present application.