For his colleagues, Matt Taylor is the man with the golden butt. His job is to sit in cars as they rumble across purpose-built tracks paved with cobblestones or blighted by potholes and use his unusually sensitive posterior to analyse the quality of the ride. His goal? To build an intelligent suspension system that can do away with jolts, and let drivers switch the feel of their car at will.
“We know whether it feels right or if it doesn’t,” says Taylor, a vehicle dynamicist at Boston-based startup ClearMotion. “We have to do our best to convert that feeling into objective measurements.” Those measurements would help tweak an electro-hydraulic system that clips on to a car’s suspension and shifts the wheels as the car moves over bumps in the road. As the wheels dodge up and down, left and right, the car – and the people within it – stay perfectly still in the centre.
Achieving total isolation requires a network of eight accelerometers on each car – one behind each wheel and another four on the vehicle body. Five milliseconds after an accelerometer detects a wheel starting to dip into a pothole, it sends a signal to an electric motor that injects a fluid into the suspension, forcing the wheel to extend downwards. If this happens quickly enough, the body of the car will barely move at all.
It goes beyond just one ride. With every journey, ClearMotion’s sensors generate reams of data, which, over time, allow ClearMotion to build up a detailed image of every lump and bump on a given road. The the system can draw on this data the next time it encounters the same stretch. “As you’re doing the same commute every day, the car is going to know what it’s going over, and it’s just going to get better and better with every ride,” says ClearMotion’s founder and CEO, Shakeel Avadhany. Potentially, this information could be shared between cars, allowing them to alert each other about upcoming road features. For example, if a car were warned that it is approaching a speedbump, the suspension could lift the wheels so that passengers would barely be able to feel the bump.
Sensor data could even be used to improve the roads themselves. Indeed, Avadhany plans to collaborate with governments – sharing data from ClearMotion to flag up roads in need of maintenance. He says that his system can identify a crack in the road long before it develops into a pothole, and that passing that data on to city authorities could save huge sums in road repairs. Since the system gets to know the road surface so well, it could pinpoint the location of a defect down to between ten and 20 centimetres.
Currently, ClearMotion is working with six major manufacturers, who want to build the smart suspension into their cars: the first vehicle is scheduled to hit the road in 2020. Avadhany says that, apart from enhancing their comfort, ClearMotion would allow drivers to switch between different rides on the go. “With the swipe of a finger, you can completely transform the DNA of a car, based on what you want,” he says, right down to emulating particular models. People might head to a race track, flick the suspension to sports mode and feel as if they’re driving a Porsche 911; on the way home, they could tweak the settings and make the car feel more like riding a train.
But for Avadhany, who founded the company in 2009, ClearMotion is about more than letting drivers switch up their suspension. He thinks his firm’s technology could have huge implications for autonomous vehicles. Cancel out the usual bumps and jolts of the road, and super-smooth autonomous vehicles could become spaces where people can knuckle down to some work or watch a film without the threat of motion sickness. Avadhany’s end goal is a “magic carpet ride” where the car is completely isolated from the road beneath it. “We believe that the quality of time in motion needs to be transformed.”