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Auto supplier set to accelerate with seat-control software

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ANDERSON—A company founded by a Westfield chiropractor is in talks to license to automakers software that’s designed to produce a less-fatiguing ride.

Comfort Motion Technologies also wants to manufacture aftermarket versions of the software in the form of add-on modules that could be used in most any car with a power seat.

CMT’s founder and CEO, Paul Phipps, said CMT is talking with automakers and hopes to have the first licensing agreement signed by year-end.

Phipps declined to identify the automakers. But he said talks have been with both domestic and foreign companies for possible inclusion in 2011 model-year vehicles.

Unlike inflatable air bladders or other gadgets that are expensive to incorporate into a seat, CMT’s product is mere software loaded into a vehicle’s computer. Every three minutes or so it causes the seat to move—a slight tilt of the backrest or nudge of the lumbar support, for example.

“The automakers love the idea because it’s a way to enhance the [seat] technology that they already paid for,” said Alan Rowley, a former General Motors manager who is CMT’s senior vice president of marketing.

It’s been nearly five years since Phipps started to commercialize the software algorithm in earnest at the Flagship Enterprise Center in Madison County. The business incubation center is a collaboration of the city of Anderson and Anderson University to help rebuild the city after the loss of thousands of GM jobs.

The idea took root after Phipps treated a patient with back problems. He suggested the patient move his seat every so often while driving to redistribute weight on the spine. The patient suggested urging someone in the auto industry to come up with a seat that automatically adjusts itself.

Talent courtesy of GM

Phipps took the idea and ran, backed by private investors he declines to identify. He didn’t have to go far for management talent, with Anderson awash in former GM engineers.

Phipps hired as engineer Tom Epply, a 30-year GM veteran in electronic products. The head of commercialization is Thomas Estes, another GM guy, whose father, Elliott “Pete” Estes, was president of GM from 1974-1981.

Rowley, the vice president of marketing, worked at various GM divisions, including Chevrolet, Delco, Delco Remy, Frigidaire and AC Delco.

“There’s just a lot of great automotive minds up here,” said Phipps.
 
That team has been driving a Cadillac CTS back and forth to Michigan to demonstrate the seat software’s capabilities to automakers’ engineers.

Get behind the wheel and the movements are soon obvious—with the seat back nudging slightly like a kick from an antsy child sitting in the back seat. Phipps assured a visitor that the final version is more subtle.

Another couple minutes later the Cadillac’s power lumbar support moved slightly. A passenger can feel the difference in weight distribution. One purpose is to shift the pressure points on the spine and other parts of the body so weight isn’t concentrated for long periods on particular points.

The effects can be felt in other parts of the body, as well, including the knee. The ultimate goal is to reduce fatigue and improve circulation and driver attentiveness.

But moving the driver’s seat is problematic, if only from a liability standpoint.  Phipps said a lot of thought has gone into that, including deactivation of seat movement when the vehicle’s brakes are applied.

Driving for licensing deal

The company has yet to sell its software. But it holds two patents and has two others pending. Development costs have been paid for in part by a nearly $1 million state grant that went toward proof-of-concept work at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and driver analysis at Ball State University.

More recently CMT tapped Logan University, a chiropractic college in St. Louis, for further testing.

Subjective impressions of comfort aren’t sufficient: the research teams have attempted to quantify improvements with such tests as ultrasound measurements to gauge how a driver’s circulation has improved or weight distribution changed.

“The car guys want to be able to make a claim, like ‘You’re 21 percent more comfortable,’” for example, said Rowley.

Automakers have become more concerned about ergonomics in recent years, said Terri Lynch-Caris, assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at Kettering University, in Flint, Mich.

She points to features that have become more common, such as adjustable pedals to accommodate a wide range of driver shapes.

Lynch-Caris said the driver’s seat is particularly important to a potential vehicle buyer. “It would be the first experience you have” with a car.

Ergonomics are also more of an issue as motorists spend more time in their cars due to increased congestion and more distant commutes. A driver’s ability to concentrate is key, particularly with tasks such as talking on the phone, texting and checking e-mail happening in the car. “Your vehicle has almost become your office.”

Lynch-Caris said the CMT product “seems like a great idea,” although the cost to automakers will be a key issue.

CMT officials aren’t talking details on licensing. But they’re refusing to sign over their brand rights. In the spirit of Bose, Dolby or Onstar, “we want CMT on that window sticker,” said Rowley.

One reason is the potential for add-on modules for cars already on the road. Phipps said he’s committed to making the modules in Madison County, which has lost thousands of automotive manufacturing jobs over the last two decades.

The modules—essentially an electronic box that would be wired into a car’s computer—would be professionally installed by auto dealers and could be a good source of supplemental revenue for those dealers, CMT officials say.

They’re also exploring other applications, such as for heavy trucks, which cause any number of back problems for truckers.

First-class and business-class airline seats—some of which already have power seats—are another potential application. The aviation application could be sold not just for improving comfort but for reducing the odds of potentially fatal blood clots on long flights.

“We know that our technology can improve that,” said Phipps.

Another health application is for quadriplegics. At a golf tournament, Rowley watched a father every half hour or so lifting his son under the arms, up slightly out of the wheelchair, to improve his circulation and breathing.

All of which raises the question how much is the technology worth on a commercial basis?  After all, an estimated 35- to 40 percent of vehicles have some type of power seat function.

Ultimately, the rewards are hard to quantify until CMT begins striking licensing deals.

Unlike other automotive applications, CMT doesn’t have to build an assembly plant to get started. “I think our initial production cost is attorney fees,” Phipps said.â??

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