Gentex Product May Fit Potential Safety Standards

October 5, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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ZEELAND — Gentex, the high-tech rearview mirror manufacturer, has taken note of the federal government's interest in one particular type of vehicle accident, because the new rear camera display technology from Gentex may be a solution.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an average of about 183 children die each year from being crushed by a vehicle backing up — often in the driveway where the child lives.

Legislation was introduced in 2007 by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., to require a rearward visibility performance standard for light vehicles that would provide drivers with a means of detecting the presence of a person or object behind the vehicle. The bill is still in committee.

Research commissioned recently by Gentex indicates that even though most drivers consider backing up a "dangerous activity" and over half have experienced either a backup accident or "close call," few drivers actually take the time to walk behind their vehicle to check for potential obstacles. In fact, nearly 60 percent said they "rarely" or "never" look behind their vehicle before backing up.

According to a Gentex news release, automakers are responding to the dangers of backing up by offering an increasing number of sensor-based audio and/or visual alerts, and rear camera display systems.

RCD systems involve a tiny camera lens mounted on the rear of the vehicle; how that image is conveyed to the driver is where the systems vary.

Gentex, which produces about 80 percent of all the automatically dimming rearview mirrors in new cars built around the world today, has developed a "transflective display technology" that converts part of the inside rearview mirror into a video screen showing what is behind the vehicle when the transmission is put in reverse, according to Craig Piersma, director of corporate communications at Gentex.

Other RCD systems are more expensive because they typically require a navigation system display for the video image. In the Gentex product, the rearview mirror is just a mirror — until the driver puts the transmission in reverse.

"This mirror option can be offered in a more cost-effective way," said Piersma, noting that navigation systems can cost "from $800 to a few thousand dollars." The RCD using the Gentex mirror can be ordered as an option on a Ford F150 pickup at a cost of about $455, he said.

The Gentex mirror for RCD systems is currently port- or dealer-installed equipment on the Mazda CX-9, and is factory-installed equipment as a stand-alone option on the Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator and Mark LT, in addition to the F-150 pickup.

Piersma said the transflective display technology developed by Gentex involves coatings that allow light to come through the mirror from behind, but also allow the mirror to function normally.

"We developed this transflective technology a number of years ago," said Piersma, adding that for at least five years, the company has been supplying transflective mirrors for taxis used in Germany. When the cab ride starts, so does the "meter," and that illuminated meter information appears on the rearview mirror, for all passengers to see.

"There is significant interest from our customers to offer mirror-based rear camera displays on their vehicles because they're easy to integrate, quick-to-market and are not tied to expensive navigation systems," said Gentex chairman and CEO Fred Bauer.  He cited the company’s research findings, which "demonstrate a strong consumer appeal for rear camera systems and for the rearview mirror as an intuitive and ergonomic location to display rear camera images."

According to the Gentex research, consumer awareness of rear camera systems is high. In addition, 83 percent of drivers want a rear camera system on their next vehicle, and 77 percent would prefer that the display be located in the rearview mirror.

Gentex has been having a very good year. In August, the 33-year-old company announced that it began shipping auto-dimming mirrors for the new 2008 Honda Accord.

"This is a very significant new business win for Gentex," said Senior Vice President Enoch Jen.

Gentex started business in 1974, manufacturing commercial fire protection products. It still produces photoelectric smoke detectors and alarms, visual and audible signals, speakers, and portable smoke alarms/visual units, but now it is primarily an auto industry supplier. More than 96 percent of Gentex sales are from its auto-dimming mirrors, supplied to nearly every major automaker in the world. Its 100th million automatic-dimming rearview mirror was shipped in the second quarter of this year.

Piersma said that worldwide, "about 18 percent of vehicles being sold have auto-dimming interior mirrors, so there is plenty of room for growth."

Yet another new product from Gentex is an electronically dimmable cabin window that will be used on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, in partnership with PPG Aerospace. According to Gentex, it is the "first commercial aviation application for electrochromic window technology," and will permit passengers to adjust the amount of light transmitted through their windows, from fully transparent to fully dark.

Gentex has been having a good year on the stock market, too (NASDAQ: GNTX). The company reported record second-quarter results, and net sales for the first six months increased to $320.7 million compared with $281.4 million in the same period last year.

Growth in orders for Gentex external auto dimming mirrors has led to construction of a 60,000 square feet addition to the North State Street plant, which should be complete by February, according to Gentex CFO Steve Dykman. This summer Gentex received approval on a 50 percent, 12-year tax abatement on the total expansion investment of approximately $36.5 million: $31 million in new machinery and equipment and $5.5 million for the plant expansion.

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