The Innovation Journey that Led to the Bose Ride System
Jim Parison on developing the Bose Ride System
By Paul Arnold
Bose Corporation may be best known for high-performance audio equipment, but its research, technologies and innovations go far beyond sound.
In 2010, it launched the Bose Ride® System, an electromagnetic-based, vibration-cancelling truck seat suspension that has radically transformed the ride quality and health of truck drivers. This is the story of its invention, which started nearly 50 years ago with a mathematical model.
During the 1960s, Dr. Amar G. Bose, the founder of the Bose Corporation, came up with an elegant mathematical model for a radically new kind of car suspension. He wanted to develop a system that would intelligently control a car’s motion and deliver both comfort and handling simultaneously. However, the technology to bring his ideas to fruition didn't exist at that time.
What followed was many years’ worth of research and development that culminated in the Bose Ride system, a truck seat suspension system that protects drivers from the effects of high levels of shaking and jarring when they get behind the wheel.
One of the principal players in its development and manufacture was Jim Parison, a Distinguished Engineer at Bose, who will take up some of the story in this article.
He was hired in the mid-1980s to help Dr. Bose develop the car suspension system, but nine years into the project pondered the technology’s potential in other areas: “My thinking was directed toward occupational drivers who spend up to 11 hours a day in trucks and where vibration levels are much worse than they are in automobiles,” said Jim.
These were the early beginnings of a product that would reduce driver fatigue and pain and greatly improve truck driving ride quality.
Far from Easy Riding
Truck suspension systems are designed to carry heavy payloads, not to make the ride especially comfortable for the driver. Consequently, prolonged exposure to punishing road-induced vibrations causes a range of health problems as numerous studies have discovered.
The technical term to describe the shaking a driver’s body experiences on the road is whole body vibration (WBV). When a truck encounters bumps, potholes and other types of road disturbances, the vehicle’s motions travel up the cab and into the driver's body. The health consequences can be serious, and include back pain and issues with the lungs, bladder abdomen and digestive system. Ultimately, a driver’s career may be cut short because of ill health.
Although drivers had experienced these problems for years, very little effort had gone into alleviating their suffering. However, the late 1970s saw an innovation called the air ride seat, which is still in use today.
“It is simply a seat that has an air spring inside,” adds Jim. “It became the standard in all large trucks, at least in North America. It was a great innovation in its time and took some of the edge off the really harsh bumps, but it had a lot of shortcomings.”
Jim envisioned building a vibration-cancelling system into a truck seat, an electromagnetic-based technology to counteract the forces from the road.
He did some calculations and computer simulations, which told him that such a system would be possible if actuator technology could be made smaller.
The project shifted a gear with the building of prototypes and the testing of the technology with real truck drivers. Jim and a couple of his colleagues obtained their commercial drivers’ licenses and took to the road to try out the innovation. They gleaned insights from their own experiences as well as those of the end users.
“That was how I wrote the first specifications of how this thing should work – how much stroke it should have, how it should behave, whether or not we would do isolation in other axes besides vertical, how the seat should move and so on.”
During this stage of development, the Bose Ride prototypes didn’t fit under the seat, only the actuators could. The electronics were still too big, and so they occupied the back of the truck. Nonetheless, experiments showed how truck drivers were benefiting. What they said about their experiences convinced Bose to develop the technology as a commercial product.
“The drivers were saying things that we didn’t anticipate. We knew that over a 10- to 15-year period they would have fewer back problems and wouldn’t have to retire as early. What we didn’t know is that they would feel the effects in such a short time. They said things such as ‘I don’t have to see my chiropractor on Saturdays anymore’ and ‘I am not as sleepy toward the end of the day.’”
Trials and Tests
Once the prototypes were practical enough to easily fit into a truck, trials commenced with approximately 70 drivers. They were interviewed before, during and after their rides, and this feedback provided Bose with important information that helped them engineer the system.
“We also got lucky in that a lot of the power amplification technology that was coming out – bipolar transistors and things like that – was moving in the right direction. You were able to have super high power amplifiers in very small packages.”
Before the Bose Ride system could be launched into the market it also went through six years of torture testing and redesign to ensure that each system would be able to last a million miles maintenance free.
“The technology was torture tested to survive very harsh environments, including dust, salt fog, extreme temperatures and bombarding the electronics with all sorts of RF, such as lightning strikes and cell phone clicking. All in all, there were more than 50 torture tests that this thing went through.”
Ready for the Market
Eventually, the Bose Ride system was put on the market in 2010, the culmination of years of dedicated work and numerous groundbreaking innovations.
"Almost everything had to be invented here. Many engineers on the project have multiple patents.”
According to Jim, he didn’t invent the technology, but adapted it: “This is really Dr. Bose’s brainchild of how to protect people from the effects of vibration.”
Bose Corporation’s founder worked closely with Jim and his colleagues and provided a supportive environment in which they could see where their ideas and the technology would take them.
“He was patient. If he believed that the math said it would work, he was prepared to wait to see if it would go.”
Improving Ride Quality and Lives
While Jim felt a great sense of pride and achievement in what his team had done, he says the biggest satisfaction comes from knowing that the Bose Ride system is improving the lives of truck drivers.
“It is really rewarding to see people benefit who had suffered because of the conditions of their job. And it’s not necessarily because their employers are mean or don’t care about them. It’s that there wasn’t any technology that was actually solving the problem.”
In fact the positive impact of the system on ride quality and health has been documented in at least one academic study. In 2014, Bose Corporation partnered with TCA (Truckload Carriers Association) member fleets to conduct a study of 100 drivers across three fleets to measure the impact of the Bose Ride technology. Among the key findings were significant reductions in driver pain, lower levels of fatigue at the end of the day and more rapid recovery after long road trips.
And of course, there are the words of those who actually use the system.
“I thought I was going to have to quit my job,” said one long-distance driver. “I was in crisis because my back was in such bad shape, but now I feel great I am driving fulltime.”