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Thursday, Sep 16, 2004

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Bose suspension promises radically smooth car ride

Anand Parthasarathy

Two vehicles of the same make and model are driven over a bump course at night. The vehicle on the top has the original factory-installed suspension and the vehicle on the bottom has the Bose suspension system. Both vehicles are being driven at the same speed.

(Recently in Framingham - US)

FROM a high-fidelity speaker system to a high-tech vehicle suspension, might seem like a sharp change of direction for any company.

But for engineers working with the best-known US corporate to bear an Indian name - Bose Corporation - the change is merely part of technological evolution. Because underlining both developments, is the belief that electronics can make most things better.

The Framingham base of the company is close to the alma mater of its founder-Chairman, Dr Amar G. Bose - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he had taught till two years ago - and also to the Harvard Business School, nursery of some of the more daring business initiatives the world has seen.

The 74-year old Dr Bose, who created his company 40 years ago with just one compelling product - the Direct-Reflecting speaker system - saw it become a household name for high performance home entertainment systems, including the Wave-guided Bose Radio-CD and the acoustic noise-cancelling "Quiet Comfort" headphones.

The same quest for technically elegant, if pricey perfection led the owner-inventor to grapple for 24 years with an idea triggered by his first prized possession, an imported Citroen car - "the most important car I ever rode — from a theoretical point". The most luxurious sedans and the most efficient sports cars shared the same basic suspension system - springs, backed by pneumatic or hydraulic shock absorbers. The technology was purely electro-mechanical and was limited in the ways it could react to bad road conditions.

Why not think electronically instead? The alternative was theoretically sound, the technology to implement it was not quite in place. But two decades and more, down the road, Dr Bose and a fairly small team of engineers who have stuck with him throughout, were finally ready last month, to unveil the world's first electro-magnetic automobile suspension system.

It is not easy to impress hard-nosed technology watchers whose regular beat is the auto industry centred around Detroit, Italy, Japan and Germany. But they broke out into spontaneous applause when a luxury sedan car retrofitted with the Bose suspension prototype, navigated gruelling obstacle course replete with bumps, swerves and speed breakers, with hardly a pause, the driver and passengers totally cushioned from the irregularities of the road surface, even as a duplicate car with normal suspension, sent the driver careering dangerously, the windows rolled down lest he bashed his head against the glass.

The Bose system is built around four significant technologies: A high speed linear motor, high power regenerative amplifiers to drive the linear motors, a complicated mathematical algorithm that governs the lightning-fast reaction of the suspension system to road conditions and an in-built micro computer/ digital signal processor to control the entire system.

A "four poster" computer-controlled test bench within the Bose development centre helped engineers, record the worst road conditions they could encounter in the US — then simulate them to put the new suspension system through its paces. "The challenge has been to keep the weight and the power consumption down," Dr Bose explains.

"We have got the power requirement down to a third of what the car air conditioner would typically demand; and right now the suspension system involves an additional 200 lbs (80 kg) payload. We're already working on turning out lighter, shorter actuators".

Since 1990, the suspension system was being developed in a hush-hush manner, codenamed "Project Sound" to put the inquisitive off track: Banks and lending agencies assumed this was another audio project - and funding was more forthcoming. The late-August unveiling of the Bose Suspension before an invited audience of the global auto and technology media has triggered off numerous enquiries from industry leaders.

"Ideally I would like to work with one manufacturer to start with, helping the company to offer the Bose suspension as an alternative fitment to an existing vehicle, which I imagine would be one of the luxury passenger cars," Dr Bose told this correspondent. "I am fairly confident of finding a manufacturing partner by year end — and we should see cars with the electro-magnetic suspension being offered within 4 years," he added.

Where will he look for such a partner? Dr Bose sees the whole world as a potential market - but admits a partner in the US (which usually means nearby Detroit) might be logistically sensible.

In a dramatic finale to the outdoor demo-run, the Bose car approaching a 15 cm-high road block, at a brisk speed, gently `hopped' over the obstacle, with neither pair of wheels touching it. Clearly speed breakers, rumble strips and the like, pose not threat to the Bose suspension, whose electronic brain directs the wheel base to skim over them.

It remains to be seen if the path that leads to the eventual commercialisation of this undeniably radical suspension system will be similarly smooth.

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