What it’s like to drive a car with Mass.-made suspension that eliminates bumps
BILLERICA — The luxury SUV jolts with head-bouncing severity as it rumbles along a track of metal ramps in a parking lot. Though the Audi Q7 is designed for a luxurious ride, it’s no match for a course designed to tax vehicles’ suspensions.
“It’s kind of violent,” says the driver, Zack Anderson.
Tapping a dashboard-mounted tablet, he switches on a computerized suspension technology developed by ClearMotion, the Billerica company he cofounded.
The car makes another pass over the offset bumps — this time with the gentle sway of a boat gliding across a set of lazy waves.
As the spring thaw produces another crop of spine-rattling potholes around the Boston area, ClearMotion is working to transform the experience of driving over them. Before long, the company professes, bumps in the road could become almost imperceptible from inside your car.
The company said it is working with three major automakers to equip high-end vehicles with its systems, which can detect rough terrain, then use hydraulics to raise and lower wheels and smooth the ride. If that’s a luxury now, it will become essential in the future, Anderson said, as ride-hailing and self-driving cars become a bigger part of the transportation picture.
“People are increasingly becoming passengers, and the question is, how will the design of vehicles of the future change based off that very different use profile?” Anderson said. “We have a multimillion-dollar opportunity today, and then we have a really transformational opportunity tomorrow.”
ClearMotion, which has raised $270 million from venture capitalists, is one of several Boston-area tech startups drawing huge money in their pursuit of changing how people use cars.
Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which uses smartphone data to measure driver behavior, attracted a $500 million investment last year . And nuTonomy, a Boston maker of technology for self-driving cars, was sold to the parts supplier Delphi for more than $400 million in 2017.
ClearMotion is looking to be among the first of these next-generation companies to become a name brand in the auto industry.
It hopes to sell its service as an upgrade at first, with carmakers asking buyers to pay a few thousand extra at the dealership for vehicles equipped with its technology. Over time, Anderson said, the technology could become widespread, just as antilock brakes became a standard feature by popular demand.
“The auto industry is really good about taking technology that delivers value, democratizing it, bringing costs down, and getting it out to the market,” he said.
After demonstrating the effect of ClearMotion’s glide technology on the bumpy course on a recent afternoon, Anderson also showed off how the suspension changes the feel of turns. As he put the Audi through a series of quick swerves, the interior remained level, with no sense of an impending roll.
The company sees this as a key safety feature, keeping maximum contact between tire and road to maintain traction.
An immediate question for ClearMotion is whether it will be able to sell its technology as more than a frill.
Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, said automakers have been working for decades to add high-tech components to suspensions. And there are some impressive ones on the market in signature vehicles like the Tesla Model S and the Ford F-150 Raptor, he said.
“Like any company trying to break into the field, they’ll have to show equal or better performance for a comparable or lower cost,” Brauer said.
ClearMotion, which employs about 215, recently moved from Woburn to Billerica to make more space to accommodate its growth. It has also opened a Wilmington production facility, where it has begun making parts for vehicles that could be sold to consumers within a few years.
The company has not yet said which manufacturers are going to include its product, or exactly how much it will cost. But Anderson said he does not think any other suspension maker can offer the level of computerized wheel control that his product does.
The system isn’t actually much to look at. Vehicles with ClearMotion have a metallic object called an “activalve” on the suspension near each wheel, and they all work together to sense disruptions along the road surface.
When one of the objects senses a change, it uses hydraulic pressure to adjust the position of the wheel in anticipation. And the company said that the more people use the technology, the smarter it will get.
Clearmotion’s components run on software that captures and uploads road contours so other vehicles using the system will be able to gird for bumps even in areas where their drivers have never been.
Anderson said the suspension is just the first part of what it hopes to do. ClearMotion also makes technology that can help the seats in a car adjust to rumbling and jostling, and he envisions eventually combining those products to further insulate those inside.
But its not clear how much of this technology is too much for drivers. Anderson said drivers have told the company they want to at least feel some of what’s happening on the road: “You don’t want to be totally disconnected while driving,” he said.
But that may become less important in the future. Daron Gifford, who leads the automotive group at the consulting firm Plante Moran, said people may eventually make decisions about whether to buy or hire a car with little regard for what it feels like to drive it.
“You’ll basically even out the experience so it’s not just [for] the driver,” he said.
“What about the passengers? How do they feel?”