Most automakers use petroleum-based foam, with an average of 30 pounds going into each vehicle, Ford said.
The company has not calculated exactly how much oil it would save if it used the new foam for every application in all of the 2.9 million vehicles it produces per year. But Debbie Mielewski, technical leader for Ford's materials research and advanced engineering department, said if all the foam was soy-based, Ford would use 11 million pounds of soy oil, and the petroleum savings would be a similar volume.
The foam, which is 40 percent soy and 60 percent oil-based, now costs about the same as conventional foam that is fully oil-based, Mielewski said.
"Currently we believe that the technology is a cost wash, but you have to remember that is because we are implementing it on one program and lower volumes," she said, predicting that the cost would drop when used in more vehicles.
The annual worldwide market for automotive foam is 9 billion pounds, so a switch to a renewable material could have a significant environmental impact, Mielewski said.
Ford said the environmental advantages include reduced carbon dioxide emissions in manufacturing compared to petroleum-based foam, lower energy use to produce the soy foam and reduced dependence on foreign oil.
Ford is teaming with supplier Lear Corp. to install the seats at a joint Mazda-Ford factory in Flat Rock, Mich., the company said.
The company hopes to use the new seat foam in more models in the upcoming 2008 model year, Mielewski said. It also is applying for patents on the foam technology.
And no, the seats are not edible. That's because they still contain petroleum, the company said.