Gentex Brightens The Future

June 5, 2002
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ZEELAND — A sensor that automatically switches a vehicle's headlights between low and high beams is the latest electronic gadget designed to provide motorists a better view around them.

The SmartBeam system is the first in what both parties hope is a series of new products developed under a partnership between Gentex Corp., the Zeeland-based firm known for its automatic-dimming automotive mirrors, and Photobit Corp., a Pasadena, Calif., maker of advanced image sensors. Gentex owns a 10 percent share of Photobit and anticipates joint development of many more products in the future using what it describes as "camera on a chip" technology.

"Certainly there'll be other products. We're hoping we'll have a number of applications for their technology," Gentex spokesman Craig Piersma said. "There's a lot of other ways to use cameras in cars and we hope to commercialize as many as possible."

SmartBeam is designed to enable drivers to use their high-beam headlights more often when driving at night. Image sensors detect a vehicle ahead, whether it's oncoming or traveling in the same direction, and fades the high beams to low beams. When no other traffic is present, it activates the high beams.

Ford Motor Co's. Lincoln Mercury division is working with Gentex to adopt the technology for its 2004 model year. Gentex is marketing SmartBeam to other automakers as well, Piersma said.

The SmartBeam system represents the latest use of imaging technology to improve vehicle safety. Several automotive suppliers are developing or marketing new products that use optical semiconductors.

Holland-based Donnelly Corp., for instance, launched two new aftermarket products in December that use so-called "camera" technology. BabyVue uses a camera mounted in a vehicle's headliner to generate an image on a small monitor that flips down from the rearview mirror so motorists can check on children in the back seat. ReversAid uses a camera on the rear of a vehicle to provide drivers a view behind them when they're backing up.

Johnson Controls Inc. has a similar system, called Hindsight, which it is marketing to automakers.

Automakers are enthused about the new image-sensing technology and the potential safety benefits they can promote to help them sell vehicles, said Frank O'Brien, Donnelly's vice president of corporate marketing. O'Brien expects image-sensing technology that delivers data to the driver or improves their view of the road to become commonplace on vehicles within five years.

"We are at the very, very early stages of a pretty significant technology for the vehicle," O'Brien said. "There's a great deal of interest among car companies in several areas as far as using cameras."

The key to such products is to provide automakers something they can intergate into a vehicle in a way that car buyers see as necessary and helpful, said Bill Dawson, a spokesman for John Controls' Automotive System Group.

"We have to present them to the driver in a way that makes sense," Dawson said.

While technologically advanced and time-consuming to develop, electronic gadgets and their potential safety enhancements have a future in the auto industry, said Mark Cornelius, an automotive consultant with Morgan & Co. in West Olive.

"All of these products have worth in the marketplace if they're going to provide safety or enhance safety to the vehicle or to the passengers in the vehicle," Cornelius said. "There's going to be demand for them."

In the case of SmartBeam, Gentex says the system will enable motorists to make better use of their high-beam headlights. The company cites a U.S. Department of Transportation study that found drivers tend to use the high beams less than 25 percent of the time during periods in which their use was appropriate.

Gentex, which employs about 1,600 people at its Zeeland facilities, has high hopes for SmartBeam, envisioning sales to eventually match that of its popular Night Vision Safety auto-dimming mirrors, Piersma said. Sales of NVS mirrors accounted for about 90 percent of Gentex's $297.4 million in revenues during 2000.

Gentex also hopes SmartBeam will become a common component in vehicles sooner than its NVS mirrors, which debuted in 1987 as an extra on luxury cars and only in the last two years have begun to show up as original equipment in moderately-priced vehicles. The company plans to follow the same model, rolling out SmartBeam on high-priced luxury vehicles and then bringing it down to lower-priced categories as the product evolves.

"We'd don't know how long that will take, but we'd like to follow the same trajectory," Piersma said. "Obviously we'd like to see it quicker."

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