On first glance, it appears to be a passive rectangle of reflective glass. But the full-display mirror, or FDM as its maker Gentex Corp. calls it, comes alive when you start the vehicle. In the Cadillac CT6, XT5 and Chevrolet Bolt EV where it debuted in 2016, the FDM pulls an image from a rear mounted, high-definition camera and streams it onto an LCD display embedded in the mirror module.
The result is a high-value safety feature: sharp, real-time video of the scene behind the vehicle. It’s presented in a 40° field of view—more than double the lateral scope of a traditional optical mirror. Because the driver is actually seeing through the rear-mounted camera, the FDM makes the vehicle’s roof pillars and rear seat head rests disappear to the eye. The view is unobstructed.
The FDM is as tech-intensive as any system in the vehicle. A tiny high-dynamic-range camera in the module reduces nighttime glare by adjusting the lighting contrast on a per-pixel basis—“pixel-level intelligence” is how company engineers describe it. Ten patents cover the hardware design, the video streaming and wide angle de-warping (correcting the lens’ inherent geometric distortion), and the hydrophobic coating that enables the rear camera to shed raindrops.
Self-adjusting electrochromic mirrors are Gentex’s core product and a technology platform that’s well-suited for scaling into autonomous-vehicle systems. The company shipped over 31 million mirrors last year, helping it achieve $1.679 B in sales and dominant automotive market share. (The company also produces dimmable aircraft windows and sophisticated fire-protection sensors, which helped launch Gentex in 1974.)
Impressively, the electronic, software, chemical and industrial-design IP comes from Gentex’s global headquarters and R&D complex in Zeeland, Michigan, bolstered by key collaborations. All manufacturing including imager systems, microphones, glass bending and thin-film products is done in-house, too.
“We see a couple different ways to stay current in the market.” said Steve Downing, Senior Vice President and CFO. “Beyond our own home-grown R&D, we’re always looking for and at start-ups and asking if the core technology they’re developing fits our strategic geography and capabilities. Working through new innovative ideas from other companies and helping them get to market quicker with our development and expertise is one of the two ‘fuses’, along with in-house R&D, that we try to light. Because you never know which one will get you to the finish line.”
The company, whose Homelink system pioneered V2H (vehicle-to-home) communications, has been attracting not only university engineering graduates, but also a growing number of Silicon Valley electronics and software veterans. They’re moved by an innovative corporate culture and the moderate cost of high-quality living in western Michigan.
“Part of the Gentex culture has always been to have engineering close to manufacturing, so engineers and scientists get to see and touch their ideas. It doesn’t get outsourced to southeast Asia,” noted Neil Boehm, Vice President of Engineering. “The group that creates all the test equipment for production sits right next to the hardware group for Electrical. We have our own applied-materials group in electrochromics who do enhanced infra-red emitters, polarizing, new UV technologies. You can literally watch the processes developed, watch the equipment being built, then watch your idea become embodied in a product.
“That’s a strong part of our recruiting pitch: We’ll fund your ideas, run them down and find out if there’s a marketplace for them,” he said.
Boehm and Downing are geeked about Gentex’s latest automotive technologies that were among the “hits” of the 2017 CES. They include a new three-camera rear vision system that streams video in multiple composite views, and an RF tag-based Integrated Toll Module, developed with partner Transcore, that allows you to drive across the U.S. and into Canada and Mexico and never have to deal with the multiple road-toll protocols currently employed. Gentex has development contracts with two customers for the toll module, expected to enter OEM use in 2019.
There’s a new mirror-integrated biometric system that uses iris (eye) scanning to authenticate the driver and deliver custom vehicle security and convenience/transactional features, and a next-generation, cloud-based Homelink.
With 60 million units in the field and nine million being added per year, programmable Homelink has been described as the original automotive connection to the Internet of Things. Downing explains that evolving the technology from RF-based to wireless (and 5G) enables it to remotely control not only to the owner’s home garage door, security gates and home lighting, but also to nest thermostats and control and monitor other appliances.
“We had to create a Bluetooth energy connection between the HomeLink module and an app on the user’s mobile phone,” Boehm explained. “The nice thing about it is, we’ve developed app functionality that can be integrated into the OEM’s app, ‘talks’ to the cloud and operates their home-automation devices--individually or an entire ‘scene’--with one button in the car.” He said Gentex is working with multiple customers for 2019 production.
Gentex's new biometric technology also is being developed for use in conjunction with HomeLink, Boehm and Downing told Automotive Engineering.
“When we totally connect the car with the home--unlock the garage, disarm the security system—and drive anywhere and seamlessly pay tolls, we need some way to authenticate the user. That’s why we started looking at biometrics,” Downing said. Gentex partnered with Delta ID, a company whose custom software algorithm looks at patterns in the driver’s eye iris through a regular camera and a near-IR camera. It then memorizes, digitizes and authenticates the patterns. Experts say Iris scanning is far more secure than fingerprints, with a lower false-acceptance rate than everything but DNA.
Boehm and Downing see biometrics as key to the ride-sharing ecosystem and for SAE Level 5 autonomous vehicles. Beyond security authentication, the technology also has great convenience potential: adjust the seat and steering wheel, upload the driver’s radio presets, GPS connections and link with her smart phone. “It can be a major OEM-to-consumer ‘touch point,’” offers Downing.
And it can also play a role in the driver-alert function that’s vital for handing back control of the vehicle to the driver during the transition from SAE Level 4 operation. “That’s the question all our customers are asking and it’s the next step for us--looking at complete-vehicle cabin monitoring,” Boehm explained.
He said iris-scanning cabin monitoring “has got to be part of the mix” that may include regular checks of the driver’s heart, breathing and other vital signs during autonomous operation.
“The trick is, can I do it with the same camera? To properly analyze a drowsy driving situation the system typically wants to see both eyes,” he noted. “Do you need one camera to scan your iris and authenticate you, then have another camera to do the cabin monitoring? It might require a new optical configuration. And it must be robust and offer full redundancy.”
Downing noted that Gentex is “getting close” to having booked business for its biometrics technology.
Beyond exterior mirrors
Gentex’s new camera monitoring system (CMS) uses three cameras to provide an all-inclusive view of the sides and rear of the vehicle. The side-view cameras are integrated into downsized exterior mirrors. Their video feeds are combined with that of a roof-mounted camera and “stitched” into multiple composite views that are streamed to the driver via mirror-integrated display.
For the moment, the CMS appears to be the ideal combination of digital vision and the redundant/fail-safe simplicity of a mirror. With Tesla and others moving toward vision systems exclusively, for aero and aesthetic benefits, what does a mirrorless future portend for Gentex?
“Replacing multiple mirrors with multiple displays is not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach,” Boehm stated. “At CES we demonstrated that there is a hybrid solution now; we don’t go from a mirror to a display immediately. You bring them both together to allow the consumer to choose what technology they’re comfortable with, realizing that the physical mirror provides a fail-safe for if the camera fails or the lens is too dirty to function.”
“We’re pitching evolution versus revolution,” Downing said. “Going 100% displays-and-cameras gives up near-field visibility and has a tremendous amount of cost. You can’t do it with 17 million vehicles in one shot. It has to be phased in so the OEM can make a profit. The consumer will decide this, I think.”
Added Boehm: “When mirrors start disappearing with the advent of Level 5 cars, we have some technologies that will truly help those vehicles serve their users even more.”