Tomorrow's Tech: Quiet Cars with Ultra-Smooth Rides

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 30, 2017

BOSTON—It’s not often you see something completely new that will change how we drive forever. Obviously, the autonomous car is one such development, but the technology that Boston’s ClearMotion is introducing is similarly revolutionary.

The ClearMotion tech is a computer that replaces the traditional shock absorber--and keeps the car stable while the wheel moves up and down. (ClearMotion image)

The company calls it the “world’s first digital chassis,” and what that means for you is summarized by video of a car rolling over rough terrain, a tower of full champagne glasses balanced on its hood. They’re not spilling, and neither will you. As ClearMotion’s fast-paced founder and CEO, Shakeel Avadhany, explains it, the wheels of the car will bounce up and down, but the cabin—and you—stay put.

The ClearMotion tech can be turned off when you want a traditional driving experience or if you want to jostle a snoring passenger into waking up. (ClearMotion)

This active suspension technology promises to solve several pressing automotive problems at once. Reading in the car make you queasy? It won’t happen in a car with ClearMotion engaged. Is facing backwards, as might well happen in the living-room-like interiors of self-driving cars, an issue? Early tests show that you’ll be fine in the flat, train-like interior of a car with a digital chassis. Ever ridden in a bullet train? At 200 mph, it hardly feels like you’re moving at all.

Get it? Without the tech, the car leans; with it, no leaning. (ClearMotion image)

The company was founded by MIT graduates in 2008, but it stayed small and under the radar until now. But ClearMotion just raised $100 million in a C round that included such investors as J.P. Morgan and Qualcomm Ventures, and it’s talking about partnerships that include the tire giant Bridgestone (also a part owner of the company). According to Bill Thompson, COO of Bridgestone Americas, "We will be working iwth ClearMotion not only to advance the future of the digital, connected autonomous car, but also to leverage our leadership in tire, anti-vibration, and air spring technology."

Shakeel Avadhany says to get ready for bullet-train rides in tomorrow's cars. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Avadhany led me through the firm’s beehive-like labs and open office floors. There are 160 employees now, many of them recent MIT grads, and the atmosphere is very much like a Silicon Valley startup. The parking lot is full of Teslas and one black Ferrari. “That belongs to our head of strategy, who used to work at FCA and VW,” Avadhany said.

ClearMotion is attracting a lot of young talent. Proximity to MIT doesn't hurt. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On benches, workers were assembling so-called adaptive actuators that are designed to replace traditional shock absorbers and—when combined with purpose-built tires—will be capable of making split-second decisions about the terrain they’re traversing. Terrain maps play into it, too.

The actuators are paired with adaptive seats, that similarly soak up side-to-side and up-and-down motions. Automakers including Lexus, Ford, Lotus, GM and Nissan, as well as Bose (the speaker/radio company) spent kazillions on this kind of technology, but the latter retailed it only to Class-A trucks, not to the mainstream auto industry. The promise was always great: It’s essentially noise-cancelling headphones for motion.

ClearMotion envisions its technology to be switchable. “If your time in the car is going to be passive, as in a self-driving situation, then you turn it on.” Avadhany said. “If you want to drive, you turn it off. A lot of money and intellectual horsepower have been spent on active suspension, and we’re close to putting it in production cars.”

Equipped cars could be on the road in two years, and ClearMotion is said to be talking to half a dozen automakers about what it can offer. To work, the technology can’t be heavy, bulky or cost too much, and it has to be a plug-and-play solution. ClearMotion says it’s ready to deliver. Shakeel Avadhany will be on my "Living Room on Wheels" panel at the tech-oriented Web Summit in Lisbon November 8. See you there?

This encounter was timely, because just the day before I’d traveled from New York City to Allentown, Pennsylvania in a $59,435 Buick Enclave Avenir. It’s the top-end sub-brand trim of the popular mid-sized Enclave, and it incorporates QuietTuning.

The Buick Enclave Avenir in Allentown with Buick marketing guru Sam Russell. (Jim Motavalli)

Buick reduces noise using an acoustic laminated windshield and side glass, insulation material on both sides of the dash, under the hood, in the doors and headliner, underbody paneling, chassis isolation and hydraulic bushings, and even quiet-tuned tires. The result on the road to Allentown was an ultra-quiet cabin that I’m sure could rival anything Rolls-Royce has to offer. How about a face-off?

The Enclave Avenir is the top trim, and that's what people want. (TalismanPHOTO for Buick)

Also part of the mix is our old friend Bose, because some Buicks use the company’s active noise cancellation that incorporates microphones in the headliner. The mikes capture noises that are processed by the on-board computer and cancelled out with countering sounds played through the speakers.

Buyers want SUVs rather than passenger cars, and they want luxury—including smooth rides and quiet cabins. According to Sam Russell, Buick’s marketing manager, an incredible 70 percent of Enclave buyers are picking the two top trims. They want all the safety equipment, top-of-the-line infotainment. “There’s a big market opportunity with the right combination of options,” Russell said.

The Avenir LaCrosse, coming next year, also adds another luxury layer at the top end. The interior theme is Chestnut. (Jim Motavalli photo)

After our visit to Allentown, Buick also introduced an Avenir version of the popular LaCrosse sedan, due to arrive at dealers early next year. Makes sense--nine out of 10 (not seven out of 10) LaCrosse buyers are going for the two upper trim levels. No pricing yet.

Inside the chestnut and black Enclave Avenir: luxury and quietness count these days, even in an SUV. (Jim Motavalli)

It’s interesting that buyers are voting for refinement, and at the same time choosing SUVs with heritage in bone-shaking off-road trails. But today’s crossovers are car-based, and no longer shake their occupants to pieces.

You've probably seen one of these colorful trucks on the highway. (Jim Motavalli)

One more thing. I was also in Massachusetts to drive the W.B. Mason electric truck at company headquarters in Brockton. The company operates 1,000 diesel trucks, but it’s in a year-long trial with a fleet of four Workhorse E-Gen electrics—with two-cylinder range extenders (via the BMW i3) to give them an impressive 120-mile cruising radius.

W.B. Mason's Workhorse E-Gen electric truck. The drivetrain is super-quiet, with 120 miles of range. But the chassis rattles and rolls. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The trucks have 60 kilowatt-hour Panasonic battery packs on board, and a very quiet electric motor. But delivery trucks are traditionally bouncy and rattly, and the one I drove was no exception. 

The guy on the left is W. B. Mason, who founded the trucking company in 1898. At right is Rick Lynch, corporate driving trainer. (Jim Motavalli photo)

So talk about market opportunities! How about an electric delivery truck with ClearMotion active suspension, Bose noise-cancelling technology and an acoustic laminated windshield?

This video will make you into a ClearMotion true believer:

Here's a closer look at the W. B. Mason truck on video:

And finally, here's Buick's pitch on the quiet cabin:

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