ZEELAND — Partnering with DaimlerChrysler AG to develop a vehicle communications system is further evidence to support Gentex Corp’s. vision that rearview mirrors are good for much more than seeing what’s behind you.
Gentex is one of five key suppliers working with the Chrysler Group in North America to develop a system that will allow drivers to connect with hands-free wireless telephones and operate other services or electronic features through the rearview mirror. Gentex will supply the Chrysler Group with custom-designed, automatic-dimming mirrors equipped with microphones and the interface a driver needs to operate the system.
Chrysler is the last of the Big 3 automakers to contract with Gentex for its telematics mirrors — a product line that Gentex has identified as one of its five product areas that will drive the company’s future growth. Gentex has long said that the rearview mirror provides a logical place to mount driver interfaces to operate an increasing number of electronic features in vehicles.
The Chrysler Group contract reaffirms that strategy, Gentex communication manager Craig Piersma said.
“In our minds, it kind of justifies what we’ve been saying for awhile,” Piersma said.
Zeeland-based Gentex already supplies thousands of telematics mirrors for 14 General Motors vehicle models equipped with its OnStar communications and navigation system. The company also recently began shipping mirrors with telematics features to Ford Motor Co. for installation in the 2002 Lincoln Town Car for its vehicle communications system that includes hands-free wireless telephone use and roadside assistance calling.
The new venture with Chrysler represents the first contract for a telematics mirror with a Gentex-produced microphone that is made specifically for use in a vehicle. The microphone can enhance sound quality and eliminate background noise, and works with voice-recognition software.
Gentex, which last month reported third-quarter revenues of $74.1 million, can’t say how many mirrors it will sell Chrysler, or the revenues the product program will eventually generate, since the automaker has only lined up the suppliers it needs to finalize the system, Piersma said. The contract, however, is further evidence that the higher spending Gentex has done in the past year on research and development is about to pay off, he said.
“It’s beginning to bear fruit,” Piersma said.
Telematics — the combination of telecommunications and information systems in a vehicle — is one of the fastest-growing segments of the automotive supply industry. While automakers are still working to sort out how best to use the technology, telematics features generally include hands-free wireless phones, e-mail, emergency or roadside assistance, navigation and global-positioning systems, remote diagnostics of vehicle problems and tracking stolen vehicles.
The technology research firm Forrester Research projects that by 2005 more than 30 million vehicles will have telematics features.
Telematics systems will range from the “very complex to the relatively simple,” Gentex Executive Vice President Ken La Grand said. Gentex is seeking to develop telematics mirrors that cross the entire spectrum, La Grand said.
“What we’re doing is preparing kind of a family of products that will enable us to kind of roll with where the manufacturers go,” La Grand told brokerage analysts during an Oct. 16 conference call to discuss the company’s third-quarter financial results. “We’ll be able to benefit from whatever the product mix turns out to be.”
Joining Gentex in working with the Chrysler Group to finalize its vehicle communications system are AT&T Wireless, Johnson Controls, IBM and Intel. Johnson Controls includes overall telematics integration, design, engineering and product development, and supplies hands-free modules.