Fancy New Suspension Could Make Car Rides a Lot Smoother
America’s roads are rough. Underspending on infrastructure has left them filled with potholes, something the AAA estimates costs drivers $3 billion a year in repairs to their cars.
President Trump’s $200 billion infrastructure plan aims to fix some of the country’s freeways, highways, and byways. “Our roads are in bad shape,” Trump said, unveiling the plan. “And we’re going to get the roads in great shape.” But the way the proposal is worded means it’s not going to help small cities, so that bone-jarring section of pavement you hit every morning may well not get fixed.
But a technical solution is coming: a smart suspension that could smooth your ride over the toughest of potholes, as well as speed bumps, cobblestones, broken concrete, bridge expansion joints, or any other rough surface.
ClearMotion, a Boston-based MIT spinoff company, is developing what it’s calling a proactive suspension system, which goes a step further than the active suspension found on high-end cars. Those systems use hydraulics or electromagnetic fluids to soften or tauten the ride. ClearMotion uses small actuators that lift the wheel clean over bumps, describing other systems as playing defense, whereas it plays offense.
“We are digitizing our relationship with the road,” says Shakeel Avadhany, founder and CEO. “Allowing a layer of software to work between the humans and the road.” That code works sort of like noise cancelling headphones, cancelling out holes and bumps with a movement in the opposite direction: Accelerometers at each wheel sense an impact, then software triggers an electric motor to pump in hydraulic fluid to push or pull the wheel up or down.
ClearMotion’s engineers allow some road feel to come through the body of the car and the steering, to communicate to the driver what sort of surface they’re on. They also allow a car to dip slightly when the driver brakes, because that’s what people are used to. In an autonomous future, though, where the driving is handled by computers, they could dial up the system to cancel out almost all motion of the car. We put the system to the test, you can watch the results in the video above.
Audi is working on a similar technology for its flagship A8 sedan, which uses electric motors and a titanium torsion bar to actively control the ride. “The customer can drive dynamically while keeping the vehicle under control or work undisturbed in the rear,” the company says. (Sounds like the job of chauffeur could get more exciting.)
As a car equipped with ClearMotion’s system drives over bumpy streets, it can collect and geotag particularly bad areas. That information could be shared with local authorities to start repairs. It could also share the information with other vehicles to prepare them for the craters to come. If those pothole fillers dawdle, that may be the best bet for a smooth ride.