ClearMotion, a Massachusetts company that wants to replace standard car shock-absorbance technology with a system that combines software and dedicated hardware, has raised $115 million in a series D round of funding led by New York-based investment firm Franklin Templeton. Microsoft, Bridgestone, Qualcomm, World Innovation Lab, NewView Capital, Eileses Capital, and “clients advised by J.P. Morgan Asset Management” also participated in the round.
Founded in 2009, ClearMotion has been developing what it calls “the world’s first proactive ride system,” which essentially rethinks traditional car suspension. The Boston-based company said it can predict road conditions, enabling a car to react within fractions of a second to ensure the smoothest ride.
This “digital chassis” consists of four electro-hydraulic “activalves” installed on the shock absorbers at each wheel, and it collects and stores road data in the cloud for analysis and retrieval at a later date. ClearMotion said that using HD maps, algorithms, and banks of big data, it continuously learns and adapts to a road’s profile, in addition to using real-time input cues from drivers’ actions.
ClearMotion likes to say that its technology does for motion what noise-cancelling technology does for audio — this is actually quite an apt analogy, when you consider the company acquired part of Bose’ business back in 2017.
Bose may be better known for its speakers and headphones, but the company — which also happens to be headquartered in Massachusetts — previously developed technology that leveraged magnets, motors, and software to help cars react quickly to bumps on the road. The technology never made it far in the automotive realm, in terms of scale, but Bose did eventually introduce the technology in some trucks as part of a new Bose Ride business unit in 2010, seeking to alleviate pain and stress experienced by truck drivers traversing bumpy roads.
“When a truck hits a pothole, it’s sensed by the Bose Ride as the floor of the cab accelerates downward,” explained Bose chief engineer Mike Rosen at the time. “The computer tells the linear actuator to provide an upward force, carrying the driver comfortably over the pothole. At the other end, the force will be pushing up, and the actuator will tell the chair to go down with the truck floor, keeping the driver level.”
In November 2017, ClearMotion snapped up Bose Ride, alongside an arsenal of more than 300 patents, as the company sought to become the “leading motion control company in mobility,” according to its post-acquisition statement. ClearMotion said that today it has 10,000 patent claims either issued or pending globally.
ClearMotion had previously raised $155 million, and with another $115 million in the bank it plans to prepare its technology for prime time. The company said it already has a production facility commissioned and ready for the first automotive companies, though it declined to name any customers. It added that it also plans to expand its data science and machine learning teams.
“Starting in the 1980s, OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] tried a lot of solutions to try to do what ‘proactive ride’ does,” ClearMotion CEO and founder Shakeel Avadhany told VentureBeat. “They literally spent four decades and several billion dollars, but unfortunately, there’s not much to show for it. The reason is because this is a very hard problem to solve, [due to] energy, weight, cost, and ‘wow’ factor. Since initial public testing of our product last year, we’ve seen instant market excitement from OEMs because they get the problem and assign a lot of value to the solution.”
The more immediate application for ClearMotion’s technology will be in human-driven cars, where it may help ease motion sickness and enable more comfortable rides. But with the burgeoning autonomous vehicle (AV) industry cranking up several notches, ClearMotion could soon find its smarts in particularly high demand.
“ClearMotion will first come to market in today’s cars, but the application within AV is also obviously massive, and those are conversations we continue to have,” Avadhany added. “This is a problem relevant to every auto manufacturer for every car they are producing today, and equally — if not more important — as they think about an autonomous future.”
As cars evolve beyond being simple modes of transport to become portable living spaces where people can sleep or work, the smoothness of a ride will likely become a greater issue.
Increased motion sickness could actually be an unintended by-product of self-driving cars. As people are increasingly relegated to passenger status, cars’ interiors could be redesigned, with seats facing backward or even sideways — and such seating arrangements are known to increase motion sickness. Similarly, as passengers focus on working or watching movies, disconnect from the road may require smarter pothole-cancelling technology to reduce nausea.
“From tire to human, we have developed a software and hardware solution that digitizes our analog relationship to the road,” Avadhany continued. “As mobility options change how people move about cities and suburbs, the importance of quality of time in vehicles escalates, both for drivers and passengers.”
ClearMotion hasn’t given a specific time frame for when we can expect its technology to hit the public arena, but with at least one “tier-1” partnership in the bag, the company said it expects to ship a product sometime in 2019.