ZEELAND, Mich. — Gentex Corp., the Zeeland manufacturer of high-tech rearview mirrors and cameras, is at the forefront of the push to develop technology for connected and self-driving vehicles.
Gentex owns the HomeLink business that enables vehicles to control lights, garage doors and other systems in homes.
CEO Steve Downing, who started with the company in 2002 and replaced founder Fred Bauer in 2017 after earning five promotions in just seven years, spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett at the supplier's headquarters here. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: How will vehicles of the future change the way Gentex engineers and manufactures glass and mirrors?
A: The entire industry is focused on how to make the car drive itself. But not many people are thinking about what happens once that occurs. We are a sensor company more than anything. How we detect changes in lighting and determine dimming curves is all about the sensors that we have created software around.
A little known part of our company is that we have a $20 million to $30 million book of business that is about smoke and fire detection in buildings.
Where these worlds start to come together is the ability to understand what's going on in the cabin of a vehicle. Its use is going to change drastically between a one-owner vehicle and the fifth user of the day of that vehicle.
How do we leverage our sensing capability and combine that with what we do in the home and office space in a vehicle application? There is going to be a tremendous need for different types of information.
Gentex dominates the market for mirrors. But it also makes cameras, such as those used in the company's Full Display Mirror. Should we think of Gentex as more of a technology company?
Our materials background is imperative to understanding who we are. We struggle to categorize ourselves because we are an electronics company, because we have to do the software in order to do the finished goods.
But we're more of a materials science company than anything else. The changes that are happening in the industry are more conducive to a materials company than anything we've seen.
What are some future technologies Gentex engineers and materials scientists are working on?
We have concepts involving our camera systems and driver identification and biometrics, how you personalize an application, secure that data and the vehicle, and how you control payment at tolls. We would argue that some of these things are farther out than many people think. But that's our opportunity to engineer solutions for when the need is finally ready, to make sure we are there with the products.
Gentex is working on a technology that could put an entire industry out of business: window tinting. Tell us about it.
It's the ability to dim glass in any format — roofs, side windows, you name it. It's the ability to control the complete lighting of the cockpit of a vehicle. I think that once self-driving cars arrive, you are going to want to control the atmosphere for privacy or comfort. For electric cars, the more you can cut down on sun-loading, the more uptime you have.
We have engaged with companies working on robocars. Their philosophy is to think about this more like an aerospace model. Don't worry about the cost of the hardware — it's all about uptime.
If you are operating a fleet of robotaxis, and if the car costs $150,000 instead of $50,000, the cost is not that important, because the car is going to get used all the time. How do you use technologies to drive that uptime even higher?
What does Gentex have in the pipeline on the electronics front?
Our sensing capability is beyond just cameras. A lot of it is active sensors and fire protection. Some of it is light and light emitting.
We've made some investment rounds of financing in technologies that we believe, longer term, are going to have long-term potential in detecting certain chemicals in the automotive environment.
There will be huge sensor needs in a robovehicle that will have 90 percent uptime. Who’s actually watching it to ensure the vehicle is clean?
How has Gentex kept such a dominant position as a supplier?
Paranoia is the key! We spend 6.5 percent to 7 percent of sales every year on r&d. We do it because unless you are innovating, you will die. Someone will catch you eventually.
On the Full Display Mirror, we hadn't even started production of Gen 1 yet when we were already engineering Gen 2. When Gen 2 was in launch, we were already starting to look at what was beyond that.
We have to destroy our own products, and our goal is to obsolete ourselves before someone else does.