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    Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a 10-part series profiling the Business Journal’s nominees for Newsmaker of the Year.

    ZEELAND – As the latest in technology spreads throughout your vehicle, the rearview mirror soon may be the most commanding force at your disposal. Opening the garage door, making a phone call, reading e-mail, making hotel reservations and checking the weather all may be activities completed simply and easily through the mirror in your car.

    How has technology advanced to such a point?

    Zeeland-based Gentex Corp. has been among the first to develop many mirror technologies, including new LED technology comprised of a high-intensity light-emitting diode that could change the way automakers and consumers look at lighting and signaling technology. These innovative processes are what earned Gentex one of the top 10 finalist spots for Business Journal Newsmaker of the Year.

    In its 26-year history, Gentex has always been a company that relies on innovation. But it’s the high-tech, self-dimming, anti-glare mirrors that have revolutionized Gentex’s niche in the original equipment market, and now the company has added to its niche. Last year Gentex introduced its new Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology.

    The company’s LED technology is the result of a high-tech solution to solve a relatively low-tech problem. Looking to add map lights to the Gentex mirror, the company found regular bulbs were too big and too hot. Instead, engineers looked to LED technology and small, cool lights. However, the LED lights did not emit the right colors for reading, so it was back to the drawing board.

    It was then that Gentex came up with a way to blend existing blue and amber LEDs to create light bright enough to illuminate maps.

    “In addition, because LEDs generate little heat and do not burn out, there is no need to design for replacement, and designers may be able to use different, less expensive, non-insulating materials around the LED lamps,” said Kenneth LaGrand, executive vice president. “We hope to have additional product applications using the new LED technology within the next two years.”

    Craig Piersma, manager of corporate communications, added that the company also expects to announce in 2001 at least one of two new technologies utilizing the LED process.

    Sold to most of the world’s automakers, Gentex’s trademarked Night Vision Safety interior and exterior rearview mirror account for 90 percent of the company’s revenues, with fire protection products accounting for the rest. Seven percent of all autos produced in the world have Gentex mirrors.

    In effect, the mirror has become the epicenter of innovation. Now Gentex wants to take the mirror one step further into the future, making it a “gateway” for all the wireless, Internet and navigation items car makers hope consumers still will demand in their vehicles.

    CEO Fred Bauer said the mirror of tomorrow also could have a powerful light sensor that will turn the headlights on and off at dawn and dusk and adjust air conditioning by sensing the amount of sunlight filtering through the windows.

    Another big idea is to equip the mirror with an electronic eye that detects rain or fog ahead before the human eye can see it. It may even prompt the car to turn on its wipers and headlights automatically.

    Also ahead in the coming year, Piersma said, Gentex expects to see sales increase, especially in Asia, where the company is seeing jumps of at least 80 percent annually.

    Bauer acknowledged that with these innovative techniques, Gentex is not without competition. Holland’s Donnelly Corp., among others, manufactures auto-dimming mirrors with similar features. But Bauer said it is Gentex’s high-tech approach that gives it the edge.

    All these innovations and technology also have made Gentex the only four-time winner of the PACE Award, which recognizes premier automotive suppliers for their contributions to innovation, technology and business performances.

    “We are honored (to be one of the Newsmaker finalists) and it is always exciting to receive awards; however, we don’t like to rest on our accolades because we always see our best days ahead of us,” said Piersma.           

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