Its name is indelibly linked to high-end audio. Say “Bose,” and you’re likely to think of tabletop radios, noise-canceling headphones or in-car sound systems. So for those few who caught wind of the Bose Corp.’s “Project Sound,” it was certain to suggest yet another acoustic research program.
That’s precisely what the company founder, Dr. Amar T. Bose, was hoping. But the intentionally misleading codename “had nothing to do with sound,” Dr. Bose acknowledged with a broad smile during a recent background briefing at his corporate headquarters atop “The Mountain,” in Framingham, Massachusetts.
What Bose pulled the wraps off was the fruits of a 24-year research program, a prototype of an active suspension system.
Out of place?
The project is not as out-of-place as it might at first seem. Some of Bose Corp.’s first products were power amplification systems. Audio technology followed, eventually becoming the firm’s public face. But Bose has continued to produce sophisticated recuperative power hardware that can be used in a variety of electronic devices — including its own prototype suspension.
Conventional suspensions use springs and shocks to compensate for bumps and turns. Active suspension technology uses magnets and motors to react to road inputs and driving forces, and on paper, such systems could yield a smoother ride while enhancing vehicle control. Active suspensions have been around for awhile; Infiniti offered a version on its first Q45 sedan back in 1989.
Despite the industry’s best efforts, the technology has so far fallen well short of expectations. Part of the problem is the amount of power required to operate the motors and electromagnets. Indeed, the Bose prototype has a peak power consumption of 50 kilowatts. But Bose uses its recuperative technology to recapture energy, much the way hybrid cars reuse energy normally lost during braking and coasting.
So, according to Neal Lackritz, a long-time member of the Project Sound research team, “the average draw of our system, when you’re driving down the road, is less than a third of an (auto) air conditioning system.”
Working with “shakers”
A working prototype of the new suspension has been retrofitted into a 1994 Lexus LS400 sedan. The standard suspension was completely replaced by a modified MacPherson strut assembly into which Bose engineers have packaged a complex combination of magnets, motors, and computer controls. But that was the only modification made to each vehicle.
The unit steers with the wheel assembly, explained Bose research engineer Steve Brown, so the majority of the force the system generates is directed directly downward, “where the tire patch makes contact with the road.” The unit at each corner operates independently, Brown added, “so one wheel no longer affects what happens with any other wheel.”
While Bose would not provide a vehicle for independent testing, it did offer several demonstrations of the suspension’s capabilities. In the first presentation, one of the Bose-modified sedans was seated atop a four-post “shaker,” a device designed to replicate the shimmies and shakes a vehicle would experience driving down a rough road, using digitally recorded data. From outside, one could see the wheels of the car gyrating wildly atop the posts. But from the inside, there was virtually no sense of motion at all.
Journalists were only allowed to observe when both a modified and standard Lexus were driven on an outside test course. But the demonstration was nonetheless striking. Even at moderate speed over a severely bumpy lane, the cabin of the LS400 remained virtually motionless. Compared to the conventional sedan, it also was notably more stable in aggressive slalom maneuvers. To drive home the system’s capability, the Bose car literally crouched and leapt across a piece of lumber blocking its path on the parking-lot course.
“We hope to achieve the benefits of a luxury car and a sports car with the same vehicle,” noted Bose engineer Larry Knox.
Company officials declined to say exactly how long before their suspension system might be ready for production, though Dr. Bose suggested it was fast approaching that phase. “Within the next six months, our intent is to take 50 percent of the weight out, and significantly reduce the cost.” He hinted the firm he founded is now beginning talks with the auto industry.
Meanwhile, theCarConnection.com has been told by a Big Three source — who asked not to be identified by name or company — that preliminary testing is now underway. The goal is to come in well under the $5000 price tag Infiniti demanded for the Q45 active suspension. But there’s little doubt, Dr. Bose stressed, that his company’s suspension system will not be technology for the masses; it would likely still be limited to top-line luxury and performance vehicles.