Bose Tries to Shake Up Auto Industry
FRAMINGHAM, Mass. - In a cleared-out parking lot at Bose Corp.'s headquarters, a test driver guides a Lexus at 25 mph toward what would appear to be an unfriendly introduction to a two-by-six lying on its side, ankle-high.
A childlike grin spreads across 76-year-old Amar Bose's face as the vehicle does something most can't: jump over the board, like a cat bounding over a fallen log.
The sedan's experimental, Bose-designed suspension, driven by four electromagnetic motors, had quickly pulled each wheel up, then down.
It's a stunt, triggered when the car passed over a reflective strip that activated a sensor linked to the suspension. But the feat hints at the more practical capabilities of a suspension system that is Amar Bose's answer to a longtime engineering challenge: giving a car good cornering capabilities without sacrificing a smooth ride.
For five decades, Bose has puzzled over why potholes seem harder to conquer than Mount Everest. He started tackling the challenge in secret in 1980, even as the privately held company he founded kept churning out the high-end speakers and stereo equipment that have made the Bose name famous among audiophiles.
"This by far consumes most of my time," Bose said in an interview at Bose headquarters, where he remains chairman and technical director at an age when many have long since retired. "For all these years, it's been rare that I didn't work on it at some point every day."
Unlike spring-and-shock absorber systems, Bose's suspension uses high-voltage electrical coils and magnets to counter bumps in the road and prevent roll around corners.
The approach is drawing praise as a revolutionary way to ensure a smooth ride, but doubts center on its cost as rivals push their own suspension improvements that are less radical, but more affordable. Bose's system could add $5,000 or so to a car's cost, along with a few hundred pounds.
"Technically, on paper, I think it's brilliant," said Aly Badawy, a vice president at Livonia, Mich.-based auto parts maker TRW Automotive Holdings Corp., which is developing its own high-end suspension system expected to be ready years before Bose's. "The problem is, is it going to be affordable?"
Bose says his suspension's technical advantages will win over high-end car buyers.
"If you ride over those roll bumps," he said, pointing to obstacles set up for the demonstration, "after just 50 feet you know you've been in a vehicle that has comfort like nothing else."
By year's end, Bose hopes to select a single automaker from a handful of companies interested in making the suspension commercially available in five to six years. He wouldn't identify the companies.
"Initially, you cannot try to go in many directions at the same time, or you won't have a good product," Bose said.
The system will be incorporated into a yet-to-be-designed luxury car as standard equipment. The system may eventually find its way into mid-range cars, but it likely will never cost low enough for inexpensive vehicles, Bose says.
He won't disclose the effort's cost to the $1.7 billion-a-year, 8,000-employee company, which he has led into years-long research ventures in fields as diverse as nuclear submarine technology and cold fusion, with varying success.
"There are a lot of projects that we've done that weren't known to the public," Bose says.
Automobile suspensions are outside the company's main expertise, and winning over colleagues wasn't easy.
"Even our financial people were trying to get the engineers to discourage me, because they all saw money going into it," said Bose, a lifelong tinkerer who began repairing radios as a teenager growing up in Philadelphia. "But some things you just believe in."
Neal Lackritz, one of only 100 Bose employees who knew of the project's existence before it was announced last year, said the effort would have been impossible at a company facing short-term profit pressures.
"Dr. Bose would have been fired many times over it if were a publicly held company," Lackritz said.
The innovations all happen in Framingham, about 20 miles west of Boston, atop a hilltop the company calls "The Mountain." A road just off the Massachusetts Turnpike circles upward to the company's glass-and-steel headquarters, where Bose speakers are abundant on office desktops.
Many employees were drawn to the company because they're music buffs. Many also come from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Bose studied and eventually taught, remaining a professor emeritus.
These days, Bose spends most of his time working from his Wayland home or at headquarters, where a glass wall in his office is inscribed with a quotation from Albert Einstein on the importance of "widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
Bose started his company using a $10,000 bank loan to pursue commercial and military applications for acoustics technologies he developed at MIT. His innovations in sound reproduction have resulted in smaller speakers along with headphones that cancel out low frequencies from outside noise such as jet engines.
The design challenges for the auto-suspension system aren't entirely unfamiliar to Bose. Technologies he devised in the 1960s to amplify audio are also used to minimize fuel costs by regenerating energy flowing in and out of the electromagnetic motors that control the wheels' vertical motion.
The challenge of improving suspension design has gnawed at Bose ever since he bought a new 1958 Pontiac Bonneville that boasted a unique air suspension system.
It helped smooth the bumps in the young electrical engineering professor's commute to MIT, though he eventually found the system unreliable.
A decade later, he bought a Citroen with an air-and-oil suspension that was even more unusual, but also somewhat impractical.
Over the years, Bose concluded that the answer to the challenge lay in designing a so-called "active" suspension to do more than simply absorb bumps. Once he finally got around to pursuing it, Bose and his engineers spent five years just testing mathematical theories and running computer models.
Eventually, they concluded that their dream would be within reach if they could make some breakthroughs in electromagnetics, power amplifiers and control algorithms. They worked on those challenges and bet successfully that the computer industry would accelerate computational speed to help the suspension rapidly respond to changing road conditions.
Although Bose no longer puts in the 80-hour work weeks he once did, he insists he won't back away from doing whatever it takes to make the suspension system a commercial success.
His colleagues don't doubt him.
"He's got more energy than an 18-year-old," said Bose president Bob Maresca. "Every one of the naysayers only strengthens his resolve."
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