I Just Drove The Car Of The Future–And It Wasn't A Tesla

The journey into the future is rarely going to take place on a smooth well-paved multilane highway. Most often it involves uncounted detours along bumpy and narrow back roads that we never even knew existed. Which is why, given the option, most of us would be perfectly content to stay on the well-worn tracks of the present and avoid all the buffeting of the future.

So, what if I told you that there was a company which could guarantee avoiding every one of those bumps in the road?  In doing research for an upcoming book I came across ClearMotion, a company which promises to do just that. Intrigued? Stick with me because I’ll bet you’ve never heard of this 100-million-dollar startup, even though it’s going to change the future of the automobile experience in ways you’ve never imagined.

First, a disclosure and some background. 

I love to drive and I love cars. But if I end up riding shotgun or, God forbid, in the back seat I’ll complain more bitterly than a two-year-old in a day-old dirty diaper. Remember those child car seats with the built-in plastic steering wheel? Those were created for kids like me.

My lifelong love of driving is in large part why I’ve been so fascinated by the idea of a driverless car. On the one hand, I have zero doubt that we will have fully autonomous driverless cars within the next five years and that the entire fleet of global transport will switch over to driverless with 25 years. (Yes, there’s a specific rational behind that number, which I just don’t have the time to get into here, but will detail in a future column.)

On the other hand, the prospect of my giving up “driving” is a tough one to buy into.

Gateway Innovations

That seems like an irresolvable quandary. It’s not. There’s a very clear path for how even die-hard auto-enthusiasts like me will transition from being the driver to being the driven. That path is lined with what I call “gateway innovations.”  These are innovations that don’t pose a threat to the status quo because they can co-exist with it and even enhance it. However, once you begin to use them going back to the status quo is nearly impossible. For example, think of how lane departure warnings, automatic collision avoidance braking, autonomous parallel parking, adaptive cruise control, and semi-autonomous cars such as Teslas, are slowly weaning us off of driving, while we’re still in the driver’s seat. As we cede more control of the driving to the car we learn to rely on and trust these systems so much that we have an extraordinarily difficult time getting into a car without them.

“…we’re okay with the status quo because we don’t have the future to compare it to.:”

When I look at the technologies that will create the greatest gravity to pull us forward into the driverless future I look for the subtle gateway innovations which will sneak up on us, almost unnoticeably, and which we will then not be able to live without.

ClearMotion has developed what may well be one the most important gateway innovations when it comes to changing the automobile experience. As part of the research I’ve been doing I had the chance to go for a test drive in a BMW 535 modified with their technology. It took about five minutes for me to realize how limited my view of the future had been. 

Before I describe exactly what ClearMotion’s innovation is, and why I feel it’s so transformative, let me set the stage with a little more context:

  • First, it’s clear that the automobile industry needs to make many incremental changes in how automobiles behave in order to acclimate drivers to being passengers. For example, many of the activities we envision doing inside of a driverless car, such as reading, working, watching a movie, or even sleeping just not going to work in a car that’s jostling around as it encounters the inevitable movements of navigating anything other than a smooth, straight, level road.
  • Second, roadways are anything but static surfaces. Roads deteriorate, they have potholes, frost heaves, bumps, seams, debris, and myriad deformities which are simply unavoidable. We deal with the discomfort of these as drivers and passengers today because we have no choice. Remember the last pothole you hit? Who did you curse, the city which didn’t patch it or yourself for not seeing it? I’m sure it wasn’t the car, because we just expect cars to behave in a certain way when they hit a pothole.
  • Third, being transported is a tactile and physical experience. It happens in three dimensions and there are constant forces acting on the car and its occupants that determine the quality of the experience. We take for granted and accept the inherent discomfort of how these forces make us feel–again because we don’t see an alternative.
  • Fourth, although we think of highways as representing the biggest risk for driving in a car, highway’s make up only 45,000 miles of the nation’s 3.9 million road miles, and (according to the US DoT) the rate of deaths per 100,000,000 vehicle miles is twice as high on local streets (1.32) as it is on highways and arteries (.74). While much of this is due to traffic conditions, a 2009 Washington Post article stated that up to half of all fatal accidents may be due to poor road conditions. Once again, that’s just part of the risk of driving in a car.

We accept all of these factors as simply being part of the driving experience. We think nothing of taking the risks and dealing with the discomforts. After all, what’s the alternative? And that’s pretty much what makes it so hard for us to envision most disruptive innovation, we’re okay with the status quo because we don’t have the future to compare it to.

If you’ve ever seen an old stagecoach or horse drawn wagon you’ve probably thought to yourself, “How in the world did people ride in those things for more than a few miles without having their teeth shaken loose from the jarring of wooden wheels on unpaved roads littered with rocks and ditches?” However, I doubt that the people who rode in those primitive carriages saw their mode of transportation as any less advanced than we do ours, just as much as I doubt that anyone today could, or would, put up with a car that had the same quality of ride as a stagecoach.

Smoothing Out The Bumps

Enter ClearMotion, which has developed what they call the “world’s first digital chassis” using Active Ride Control (ARC). Simply put ARC intelligently adjust a car’s suspension to predictively respond to road surface conditions by using a set of proprietary algorithms and four amazingly compact actuators.

Ride control technology was first developed for Formula 1 racing in the 1980s and subsequently banned in the 1993 because it allowed Formula cars to reach speeds considered unsafe on tight turns. At the time, it was also highly unreliable due to mechanical faults and onboard computers that just weren’t powerful enough to deal with the massive amount of data that had to be processed.

The second generation of the technology, called adaptive ride control, found its way into many high-end luxury and sports cars. Adaptive ride control allows you to switch from a comfort mode to a sport mode or it adjusts automatically by raising, lowering, or dampening the ride based on the road surface. I’ve got cars with both of these features and there’s no comparison, between adaptive and active ride control. Adaptive control is a defensive feature that respond but it does not predict and adjust in a real-time offensive mode the way ARC does.

The video below gives you a little better sense for how ARC works. However, I can tell you firsthand that descriptions and videos do not come remotely close to the actual experience of being in a car using ClearMotion’s ARC. The best analogy I can think of to describe the sensation of switching over from a normal drive mode to ARC is to imagine the way it feels when you are in a commercial jet at full throttle as it bounces along a runway before takeoff. Just as the wheels leave the tarmac and retract into the plane’s belly you have this immediate sense of calm and quiet. If we set aside turbulence there is not much you can’t do on a plane that you could do in a fixed room not in motion.

Shakeel Avadhany (Shak) President and CEO of ClearMotion has a wonderful metaphor, he calls what they do “noise canceling for automobiles.” In the same way that noise canceling headphones create opposing frequencies to cancel out background noise, ARC cancels out every deformity in the road with an opposing frequency to provide a nearly motionless ride. The device itself is deceivingly small, about the size of a softball. One is attached to each of a car’s four shock absorbers. The device contains a computer controlled actuator that pumps hydraulic fluid into and out of the shock absorber as the computer uses sophisticated algorithms and AI to observe, predict, and cancel out the slightest anomalies in the road.

From Cockpit to Cabin

While the device definitely changes the driving experience, it’s ultimate trajectory–and the real gateway innovation–is moving from the notion of a car’s interior as a cockpit to that of a cabin. We’ve so bought into the cockpit metaphor that we measure the value of a car by how well it gives us a sense for the road. A tight rough ride in a high-performance automobile is considered a desired feature. A driver’s seat that fits you like a glove and cocoons you to keep you from bouncing about is similarly a feature. But all of these are built around a model of the car experience that is based on the constraints of how cars drive and behave today. As those constraints are removed so will our limited view of what the car experience could be.

To be fair, the car is still driving on a roadway and it’s impossible to cancel out all sensation of motion. However, the difference in even the pre-release version of the technology that I experienced was a quantum leap from anything I’ve experienced in the most advanced luxury cars.

As we pulled back in from the test drive and brought the car to a stop Shak asked me to sit back while we watched a short clip from Jurassic Park on the car’s iPad control panel–the clip where a dinosaur attacks the Land Rover. I wasn’t sure where this was going until the BMW we were in suddenly began to lurch and jump in synchronized motion with the movie scene. As the dinosaur lunged to bite down on the Land Rover the BMW shook back and forth as though we were the ones being shaken about in the tyrannosaurus’ jaws. I commented, jokingly, that ClearMotion may be able to bring back drive-in theaters.

The Jurassic Park demo was clearly meant for impact of substance. I really don’t expect to be watching Star Wars in my driveway as I pretend my car is a rebel X-wing fighter, but as I thought about the role that the car has played in defining our culture, from Ford’s Model T to Tesla’s Model S, it occurred to me that whatever notion I might have of what a car is and how it should be used is steeped in the legacy of what I’ve known; the smooth, well-worn road of the past and not the yet to be defined twisting turning road ahead.

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